10 September 2003

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The way forward for occupational health and safety

Deputy Prime Minister and Social Policy Minister Dr Lawrence Gonzi outline the last two years of the Occupational Health and Safety Authority

During the past two years, OHSA activity was primarily dedicated towards the adoption of the relevant legislation to ensure a current and solid OHS legal framework as well as ensure full compliance with EU Directives. In addition, a substantial capacity building exercise was undertaken in order to assume a state of readiness for EU Accession in May 2004. Successive monitoring missions have reported positive feedback on the progress being registered by the OHSA in these two fields: namely, administrative capacity building and legal adoption of the acquis.
The major initiative undertaken by the OHSA was that related to the EU Twinning Agreement which saw the Health & Safety Executive in the UK and the Health & Safety Authority in Ireland join their efforts and dedicate a substantial amount of resources to their local counterpart, all of which was financed through the EU Pre-Accession Funds.
This notwithstanding, government has been having consistent feedback, that there still exists a lack of readiness from the social partners to adopt a constructive, collegial and coherent leadership on a national basis to support the cultural transformation in attitudes towards health and safety in our local context. Indeed, the latter seems to be our greatest liability and our greatest challenge on this front.
State of play
Between the first eight months of 2003, there were a total of 3,266 reported accidents at work, an average of 408 accidents per month, or almost 16 accidents per working day based on a six-day working week. 65 per cent of these accidents took place within the private sector and 43 per cent of all reported accidents took place within the manufacturing industry.
Although there seems to be an element of seasonality in that a higher amount of accidents are registered during the summer months of June and July, the most worrying aspect is that accidents are largely happening to workers with low educational attainment levels. As a matter of fact, within the same period under review, 53 per cent of accidents injured unskilled labourers with the 20-29 year old category registering the greatest frequency in accidents.
Naturally, accidents are very costly socially and economically. One surely cannot calculate the cost of grief, loss and disability which accidents on family and social life. From a finance and economic perspective, however, the accidents during the first eight months of this year have cost the taxpayer Lm355,529 in Injury Benefit, not to mention the outlays in Injury Pension, Injury Grant and Invalidity Pension. Although we appreciate that there is a certain element of benefit fraud, we cannot forsake the fact that besides the costs related to social security benefits, there are the costs related to incapacity days, or as it is called, days lost, which during this period amounted to 75,514 days. Calculating this at the base rate of a normal minimum wage of Lm52 per week, it transpires that the country lost Lm654,454 worth of labour due to occupational accidents. The greatest opportunity cost is suffered by the manufacturing industry since it represents 43 per cent of the total reported accidents.
In total therefore, between, social benefits paid and labour lost, our economy has suffered LM1 Million during eight months. An element of caution however needs to be applied. These figures are grossly deflated due to the lack of rigour we currently experience in the collection of statistics, the pervasiveness of accident under-reporting linked with the underground economy, and the employer-employee relationship which at times instils fears and apprehensions which might end up in backroom settlements. In addition, an element of lack of awareness both to report and also to consider an accident as an accident and not as an inevitable occurrence during the course of work, seems to further debilitate our efforts to arrive at a correct estimate of the cost of occupational accidents.
There is also an element of occupational ill-health, which does not strictly relate to accidents, but rather to the ill-effects. We are still unrefined in our efforts to collect relevant statistics about occupational ill-health, but if we were to take the claims for Sickness Benefits received by the Department of Social Security as an indicator (relating to employee absenteeism) we discover that in addition to that already quoted, our country lost a further 601,027 workdays due to absences from the place of work on grounds of sickness. Again, although there is an element of fraud in these absences reported, and apart from the taxpayer’s monies spent into Sickness Benefits, the country lost a further Lm5.2Million during the first eight months of 2003.
The Way forward
Bearing the above in mind, government and the social partners cannot shirk their responsibilities. The collective responsibility has not only to be shared but strategic in its delineation of roles and responsibilities which tripartism needs to bestow on each social actor to ensure that each party assumes its full responsibilities and commits itself with its membership base or representative sector.
This is the whole reasoning behind the appointment of social partner representatives on the Board of the Occupational Health & Safety Authority. Their appointment is not done in a personal capacity but in a representative capacity, and this representative capacity, be it government’s, employers’ or employees’ representation needs to be upheld at all time without losing sight of the overall challenges and opportunities which the country is facing. An element of capacity building still needs to be undertaken particularly amongst the constituted bodies to ensure that OHS is given pride of place within boardroom decisions. The figures quoted above in terms of labour losses surely point towards a competitiveness challenge to our local enterprise and industry.
Government feels the need to provide the new Board with a number of strategic policy objectives, which policies should form the body of its work and output during the next two years. Government also feels the need to make these policy objectives public in a bid to ensure full accountability towards the public and the taxpayer. Building on the experiences gleaned over the past two years, since the setting up of the OHSA, the objectives should translate themselves into concrete policy. In this manner, the new Board’s performance shall within a period of 24 months be measured across the successful promulgation of the relative policies which shall then direct the actions of the OHSA executive.
During the years 2003-2005, therefore, Government shall expect the OHSA to make good progress on the following four key-objectives:
01. Strategic policy and business planning
Although the Twinning Agreement has addressed a number of operational and strategic concerns, as well as enabled the Board to venture through its first term of office in a relatively young and promising organisation, a medium to long-term strategic and business plan needs to be set up with clear indicators and targets of performance.
This objective needs to contain a blueprint, obtained through the agreement – possibly consensus – of the social partners, which shall be publicly committed to and held accountable for the period 2004 - 2010. This Plan will delve into the OHSA’s mission, guiding principles, policy objectives and operational implementation of policies across specific time-lines.
Government expects to receive this Strategic Policy and Business Plan by the end of 2003.
02. OHS legislative reform
Although the OHSA legislation is relatively new and recent, the OHS sector represents an evolving industry in continental Europe. Since it is highly driven through EU regulations, constant watch needs to be employed to ensure that our legal framework is solid and tuned to the requirements and evolutions of the modern workplace.
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During the past two years, a number of legal provisions have been put in place bringing about the relative adoption of the relevant EU legislation in this area. Admittedly, there are still a number of legislative measures which need to be undertaken, however, Government’s strategic policy objective relates to the need to undergo a review and consolidation exercise of all the existing OHS legislation in place, updating and amending the necessary body of laws to ensure that our country has the enabling legal infrastructure which protects workers and boosts economic performance and productivity.
This objective needs to address the issue of effective technical consultations with the stakeholders and within the ambit of social dialogue. It also needs to address the dearth of technical competence being experienced within representative/constituted bodies on technical matters during the consultation phases of new legislation being introduced. Like what happened in EU matters, employers and employees representatives need to set up appropriate internal technical structures to assist their representatives during the consultative phases of such a technical area as Occupational Health & Safety
03. Introducing Added-Value Drivers
The third strategic policy objective focuses on the need to embark on a gradual, prudent but resolute programme to introduce value-added drivers to ensure corporate and collective responsibility for OHS nationwide. This revolves more about the need for establishing ownership and share responsibility for the administration of OHS.
This strategic policy direction shall need to look into:
o Measures to penalise non-compliance through administrative fines in lieu of prosecution;
o Ensuring social partnership and commitment through adequate shared-funding and participation both horizontally and vertically;
o Establishing criteria for and tackling repetitive non-compliance and breaches through ‘name and shame’ policies;
o Optimise administrative costs through technology, controlled decentralisation and empowerment of representative structures established by law such that the OHS sector moves towards self-regulatory mechanisms.
04. Combating Cultural Complacency
As shown above, there are a number of cultural challenges which result in complacency, fraud and abuse. These cultural challenges are dear on our economy and we cannot sustain them if our industry wants to ensure its comparative advantage with our competitors. Moreover, the social cost of workplace accidents and its correlation to low education attainment requires a multi-tasked approach which brings together a number of sectors to ensure that these costs are not having a multiplying effect on other social problems, such as employment, housing, education, health and the family.
Government’s last strategic policy, therefore, entails the need to set up key statistical indicators and reporting mechanisms in order to establish a multi-sector action plan for the combating of fraud and complacency in the observation of proper OHS. A lot of work has already been performed for the scoping of a Management Information System which shall adopt the Phase III requirements of the European Statistics on Accidents at Work. This however, needs now to move to its implementation phase to enable the OHSA to address the rightful and most pressing situations while monitoring compliance.
Cultural complacency is an ongoing challenge and needs to comprise a mix of empowerment, educational and awareness raising mechanisms. Social dialogue and the participation of civil society are an imperative should OHS need to penetrate areas which will most unlikely remain unaddressed through traditional means.Conclusion
The setting up of an OHSA has already reaped significant benefits. Through the efforts already employed, we have seen a growing awareness both with respect to reported accidents and ill-health. The past two years were particularly challenging in that the setting up of an OHSA required the administrative and capacity building of a new organisation, which process has not as yet been completed, albeit great progress has been achieved.
Now that the OHSA is more geared up to perform its obligations however, there exists the need to take OHS to a higher plane qualitatively than previously required. Expectations are growing due to the awareness being fostered among citizens and business. Our country’s membership into the EU in May 2004 shall similarly force our local institutions to become more accountable and OHS is a major area of action and concern within the EU.
The OHSA Board therefore, needs to be focused and oriented along the above four key strategic policy objectives. In themselves, these objectives represent a sizeable challenge which Government is sure can be attained through goodwill and willingness from all parties. Social dialogue and concentration shall be the driving force and the key towards the successful achievement of these objectives.

Copyright © Newsworks Ltd. Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Malta Financial & Business Times, Newsworks Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann
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