16 OCTOBER 2002

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The health and safety way

Health and safety in the workplace is not every employer’s favourite topic. Neither is it a worker’s apparently. Occupational Health and Safety Authority CEO Dr Mark Gauci MD speaks to MATTHEW VELLA on the arduous task of creating a safer environment for workers

The Occupational Health and Safety Authority building is tucked away into the nether-regions of the capital city, at the bottom end of St Ursola Street. If health and safety in the workplace were ever a misnomer on the island, then the fact the OHSA building can easily be missed must say a lot.

A flustered Dr Mark Gauci is sitting behind a desk in what seems to be the conference room. Maybe it is his manner, but everything the man does seems to spell h-u-r-r-y. A light handshake, a quick call for coffee, and everything delivered at top speed, him also being a fast talker.

Occupational health and safety (OHS) has been one of the most contentious issues on the island for long time. Dr Mark Gauci is the man who leads a crusade - to inform employers of their obligations, to educate workers of their duties, and ultimately to create a safer environment in which to work in.

But if the vernacular adage of "kollox jghaddi" holds true, then Mark Gauci has more whips to crack. Stories of workers being injured on the workplace due to carelessness and negligence are rampant and as yet, support an undisciplined culture where "everything goes" in terms of safety on the workplace.

"Enforcing health and safety procedures is no easy task. Many sectors of the industry make it problematic due to the nature of the work. For example, take the construction industry. The majority of builders work with small contractors who are being sub-contracted by other larger companies. These small companies have lots of temporary and seasonal workers. They are very mobile and one day they are working on one site, the next on another. This makes enforcement a tricky business.

"But the workers and employers have to know their rights and obligations and have to be aware of the dangers in the workplace and how they can minimise these risks."

Safety in the workplace has become a major issue because standards have been lacking. Builders lifting heavy stones, hard-hats rarely worn or little protection for scaffold workers. These are everyday scenes, and the horror stories that follow become just news bulletin fillers.

"There are many problems facing the enforcement of health and safety procedures. Three come to mind. The first is a lack of awareness of the problem. Employers see costs rather than the long-term benefits of investing in their workers’ safety. They don’t consider the resultant benefits.

"Then there is a certain culture and mentality where too many people have been used to appalling working conditions without knowing any alternative safer working methods.

"There is also the time factor, where employers would rather save time rather than implement job rotation for their workers."

Dr Gauci says that enforcing health and safety in the workplace does not preclude self-regulation. Education is important, and that is the OHSA’s role rather than carrying out a policing role, although it would seem that is what the country needs. But Dr Gauci says this could end up being a vicious circle.

"There are general principles of prevention and these are enshrined in the law. Prevention is the most important of all. The law explains exactly the steps to be taken to ensure prevention. Risk assessments for example are mandatory for the employer. Other steps include replacing the danger involved by something less dangerous.

"The other principle, and I have to stress this since I want to set the record straight – anything happening to a worker in the workplace is without doubt the employer’s liability, and this notwithstanding workers’ carelessness or negligence."

If ‘unfair’ is the word being processed through your synapses, Dr Gauci answers what should be a common lament.

"First of all, it has to be said that in terms of the law, employers must provide risk assessments and also control the risk at source. A good example is in the case of a noisy machine. It is not necessary enough to just provide ear mufflers for your workers. They have to be informed of the risks they are going through.

"The employer has to try and minimise risk at sources, for example changing the machine to a less noisy one. Or implementing job rotation, that way having workers spending less time on the machine. Or maybe even installing noise silencers.

"Basically it is not enough just providing workers with personal protective equipment. Employers have to inform workers of the usage of the PPE, explain why they need it and how to use, and also enforce a system of supervision, so as to take discipline when these rules are disregarded."

In fact, the OHSA has its own enforcement officials who survey workplaces ensuring the occupational health and safety regulations are being respected. The Occupation Health and Safety Act of November 2000 was published after long debate in Parliament. In May 2001, a law was passed establishing the OHS board until it finally crystallised into the OHSA in January 2002, with its own specific functions and a tripartite board that includes government officials, unions, employers and other OHS experts.

However problematic to enforce the OHS Codes of Pratice, the number of employers and workers that disregard the OHSA guidelines is unquantifable. Asking for numbers is naturally futile but Dr Gauci says "a lot."

"Very few employers can guarantee health and safety regulations. Many others are aware of the regulations and do not even provide risk assessments."

Dr Mark Gauci is however proud of the work at the OHSA. "We are going beyond EU requirements at the moment. Last September we had a European delegation coming to Malta, which included the Swedish director-general for occupational health and safety. Sweden is renowned for their very high standards when it comes to health and safety in the workplace.

"We accompanied the delegation around different work sites. Eventually they will be finalising a report for the European Commission. This is an opportunity, as a peer review, to survey the situation a little bit better. Taking Sweden’s set-up for example – now that’s something to be envied. To have the Swedish director-general evaluate our situation will give us a lot to learn from.

"I’m not afraid of constructive criticism because we can always learn from others."

Next week will also be the third Occupational Health and Safety Week taking place between 21 and 25 October.

"For the time being, we are being allowed to participate in the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work, even though we are not EU members. This is the third Euro OHS week, and for the previous two weeks, Malta has been commended for its initiatives in OHS.

"This year’s theme is ‘stress at work’ which links up well with our goal to ensure physical, social and psychological wellbeing in the workplace. So this is an initiative we’re discussing.

"We are also heading an ongoing project financed by the EU which includes 15 initiatives targeting different sectors such as communicating on health and safety, effective information, tackling fireworks manufacturers, risk assessment courses, cost-benefit analyses and others."

"Right now we also have a bilateral agreement with the United Kingdom, where four experts are involved in the implementation of the SEVESO directive. This concerns installations such as chlorine factories which could be very damaging if a disaster occurs, and which could affect neighbouring people and the environment.

"The experts are therefore guiding the OHSA and in turn we are co-ordinating with the MEPA and the Civil Protection Department.

"Another project is that of radiation protection, which is again a multilateral approach including the OHSA, MEPA, the Health Ministry and the CPD and treats those workers who are handling radioactive material. This also includes people are being exposed to radioactivity in other ways such as radiographers and their patients."


Copyright © Network Publications Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
Tel: (356) 21382741-3, 21382745-6 | Fax: (356) 21385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt