12 FEBRUARY 2003
By Matthew Vella
A crowning moment for the Ministry of Social Policy and the Occupational Health and Safety Authority took place yesterday when the new OHS regulations were published.
The regulations, long-awaited in Maltas non-safety-conscious work environment, are the culmination of the work undergone in the last years since the setting up of the OHSA.
The new guidelines will be incorporated in the occupational health and safety legislation, setting up clear measures to adopt safer systems of work including regulations covering workplaces, work-related back injuries, control of major accident hazards and radiation protection.
The new regulations stipulate that employers have to assess and managing occupational risks by including the participation, training and consultation of employees. Employers will also have to appoint a competent OHS specialist to give expert advice and draw up risk assessments to minimise or eliminate hazards.
The regulations also provide for the protection of workers against the risks involved in the manual handling of heavy loads. Employers must organise work so that manual handling of loads is avoided wherever possible and where it is not, the work must be planned or equipment provided to reduce the risks to a minimum.
14 different types of workplaces have also been listed under the regulations providing for the control of major accidents involving dangerous substances. Operators making use of any dangerous chemicals listed in these regulations are duty-bound to carry out a risk assessment and to take all necessary precautions to avoid accidents and to minimise their effects should they occur.
An important step forward has also been taken with the repeal of previous regulations prohibiting women from doing night work in most workplaces. Other specific regulations cover women who are pregnant, who have just given birth or who are breast-feeding.
The much-criticised enforcement arm of the Occupational Health and Safety Authority, often dubbed ineffective, is expected to be strengthened through the recruitment of new OHS officers. Nine new officers were presented OHS passes by Social Policy Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who reminded those present that non-compliance with OHS legislation would not be tolerated:
"We are dealing with human life and I have said many times before that the humanitarian reason for improving health and safety should be enough - but for the doubters the economic case is unanswerable. If anyone thinks that health and safety is an expensive option, they should try accidents.
"Last year, occupational accidents cost Maltese taxpayers around Lm14 million and this is not sustainable. So make no mistake, being health and safety-conscious and being competitive in business bears no contradiction."
Dr Gonzi said the five new regulations apply across the board to both the public and private sectors: "Attention to proper standards of health and safety can make an important contribution to business and economic performance and equally to improving the quality of working life for all.
"We want a health and safety system that is inclusive because the employed are healthier than the unemployed. When we introduce legislation we are mindful of the effects on business and on employment. We never introduce any legislation without full consultation, we listen to views and we act upon them."
OHSA Chief Executive Officer Dr Mark Gauci welcomed the new OHS officers, highlighting the fundamental importance of competence when it comes to occupational health and safety. He also said that if employers are unsure how to discharge their responsibilities for health and safety at work, they should employ a competent person to advise them.
"As regulator, OHSA cannot work alone but collaborate with others. There are thousands of businesses out there. OHSA employs about 20 staff. If every one of them was an inspector they cannot possibly get out to all these businesses often enough. The disappointing thing about looking at accident reports is that so many injuries are not new issues.
"We as the regulator know how they can be avoided, we give guidance on improving things, but we can't be everywhere and we can't achieve the improvements we seek on our own. We need partners - employers, trade associations, educators, trade unions, safety representatives, workers, occupational health and safety professionals, organisations and magistrates and of course ministers, to press the same messages and try to build up the influence together."