Thursday, 16 June 2011

Health and safety must be robust and proactive

Over the year's local workplace safety standards have largely been undermined by poor health and safety investigation policies, this includes enforcement procedures as a result of an acute lack of manpower and resources. In fact the latter reasons have mostly been responsible for criticisms and concerns from politicians, unions, courts and the public!

Recently since the tank explosion at the port, health and safety has had the proverbial spot-light over it. This incident as most of us know resulted in the injury of two men, who it seems were doing some welding on the tank that blew up, one of these workers received serious and life threatening injuries. Also 12 passengers aboard the royal caribbean's independence of the seas in port at the time also received injuries.

Significantly however the health and safety aspect of this serious matter did not stop with the two workmen and the injured passengers on the cruise ship. As the whole of Gibraltar I'm sure, are grateful that this serious incident was contained. Some excellent and combined work from our two local fire brigades saw too this. Firemen were able to contain the fire, not withstanding the fact however that they were grossly unresourced, this an issue which by all intends and purposes, is another subject of debate!

Hot work may have caused explosion

Coordinated investigations continue into the cause of the explosion at the sullage plant. Numerous public statements (away from the investigation) have already attributed the cause of the incident to the wielding or hotwork activity on the tanks.

As may well have been expected, a lot of public comment and experts, have questioned the important health and safety implications connected to the main possible cause theory, including the likelihood of some health and safety infringements. If all this is true: 'How could health and safety procedures have been so indiscriminately ignored?

When talking about health and safety I think of those important guiding principles or ideals and rules that always top this agenda. For instance, the argument that the 'government or any top-down organisation or any boss should lead the workforce by example' these must be important principles! The government for instance, will never succeed to implement something effectively if it does not prove that it actually believes in what it is preaching. To make matters worse, the local culture does not help to improve the situation: prevention is not always better than cure in certain aspects of local life. Just take the situation with 'underage drinking, alcohol, drugs and tobacco abuse'

Just consider for a moment the amount of construction sites and buildings that have sprouted up all over the place in the past 10 or 12 years, one has to ask questions like 'how many companies, employers including the government have actually appeared in court on health and safety related offences' judging by the many views expressed on this matter 'not that many'. Remarkable really, when you consider Gibraltar's construction revolution over recent years, it is where one would have expected a much more pro-active and robust approach to health and safety, but this has not been the case!

It's not as if we have not had any serious fatal incidents, we have! Workman have been killed! And yet health and safety cases in court have mainly been initiated as a result of a bad accident or death in a workplace, mostly caused by h&s infringements. Of course, none of this helped by very poor health and safety inspection policies on those many construction sites. Even though it's not my intention to generalise, but its part of reality that there are managers, or rather, employers in Gibraltar who unfortunately still consider health and safety as a cost. And if protective equipment or procedures is a requirement in law, they will go for the cheapest or take dodgy shortcuts. I'm sure many members of the public have seen examples of this, particular if they have gone round some of the construction sites with an observant eye.

Court urged government to strengthen its health and safety inspectorate

It wasn't that long ago jurors at an inquest into a fatal accident during the construction of waterport terraces spoke out, this when a worker suffered a fatal accident when he fell from a partly finished second floor balcony after a makeshift guardrail made from recycled timber gave way. Jurors than urged the government to strengthen its health and safety inspectorate. The recommendation followed evidence from the government's principal factories inspector, who told the inquest that his department lacked adequate resources. The inquest in fact heard that there were only two inspectors to enforce health and safety regulations in all workplaces in Gibraltar; however my information is that the situation is not any better!

But health and safety in the community is not all about work and construction sites, it covers a much larger and similarly important area than just the working environment! Health & safety in the community includes many areas; we unfortunately don't see much evidence that health and safety extends to the everyday life of everyone in society!

Take the environment, emission, smells noise and traffic congestion, a situation in which as a community, we are all daily affected by all these toxic and environmentally dangerous and unhealthy risks that affects all of us, everyday of our lives. These are serious 'quality of life issues'

Noise a real pollutant

As a resident, employee or visitor to Gibraltar you are expected to tolerate most noises, within reason and without much complaint. Noise becomes unreasonable however when it invades your space to the exclusion of everything else. We do get them, here are some examples: excessive noise from leisure establishments, especially during the night; noise generated by the never-ending construction activity; excessive noise discharged by the souped-up car or m/cycle exhausts, underlined by the bass from the super wattage system; the neighbours uncontrollable urge to share his phobic noise rage; and seasonal noise, especially in the summer months. I am sure that most of us at one time or another found that noise was unbearable but had to be tolerated due to lack of unified redress!

One of the biggest culprits of noise pollution is the generating station on waterport rd way, people living in this area are treated 24/7 to some horrendous sounds emanating from this government controlled installation, I know because I live in the area! We are told nothing can be done; basically no one listens, not because they are deaf as a result of all the noise from these machines, but because they just don't care!

Gibraltar lacks cohesive legislation and regulatory framework on noise

Gibraltar lacks a cohesive legislation and regulatory framework governing noise, there's very few laws that came's down on all those many everyday noise nuisances.

In fact we are way behind most of europe in this respect, not surprising really, when you consider that one of the biggest round the clock noise offenders is the government itself!

Gibraltar in this respect needs a drastic change of mindset. Noise is not just a nuisance; those exposed to excessive noise will suffer from hearing impairment, the gravity of which depends on the noise intensity. This analogues to the hazard of smoking 20 years ago, when smokers believed that tobacco was the safest habit and all else was hogwash!

Although if our health and safety-come-environmental authority is the official body for the investigation and abatement of noise, and if as we are told, they are short on staff and resources (a similar story to the factory inspectors) restricting them of enforcing anything; than what chance is there for peace and quite in Gibraltar!

Smells, emissions and traffic fumes

In so far as smells and emissions are concerned, well, these environmental issues and many others have been comprehensively covered by the ESG who have done great work for years in making the public aware regarding all these important environmental issues.

Although at the same time the ESG has also kept up pressure on the government to gets its finger out to remedy many of the problems affecting the community's quality of life.

By any indicator you choose, health and safety enforcement has for some time been in decline in Gibraltar. Many think it has never really been effectively implemented.

Think about it, if employers are aware that health and safety laws have fallen into disrepute, like in not being respected and there being no credible threat of it actually being enforced, why would they respect it themselves? And why would they take seriously the demands of workers and safety reps to follow it anyway, it's a win-win situation for them and a dangerous situation for employees and ultimately society.

Accidents will always happen. It only takes a blink of an eye, a slip of a finger or a misplaced step. However the chances of something happening are much greater if ineffective and inefficient procedures/policies are in place. The failure to enforce pertinent health and safety legislation greatly increases the chances of accidents and incidents occurring, as we saw in the port the other week.

Weak and ineffective health and safety practices make workplaces vulnerable, that's a fact! Although in many other ways, it will also have a direct influence on community life in Gibraltar, which in turn threatens our quality of life, now, and in the future!

Leo Olivero

1 comment:

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