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he Time Is Rife To Prioritize Public Safety

Fri, 30 Jan 2015 Source: Mensah-Pah, Jerry Detse

The Time Is Rife To Prioritize Public Safety And Occupational Health And Safety

By Jerry Detse Mensah-Pah

A wise man once said, “Zero Harm” is a “do not” target. “Do” targets are possible, while “do not” is often impossible. The focus should be on aspects like “the best available and reasonable safety practices”, or “improved measures” or “better hazard/ risk identification.” These are things that can be done. If you tell me “do not get injured”, I am going to ask you “How will I not get injured?” What will your answer be? (If you do have an answer, I bet it will probably be a list of things I should DO.)

Health and safety programmes reflect government’s as well as employer’s organizational strategic concern for employee productivity and quality of work life. As such, they should be linked with the country’s or organization’s strategic business objectives to seek competitive advantage by promoting employee commitment, the government as the largest employer and company’s image as a preferred employer, reduced costs and increased productivity. Poor occupational health and safety (OHS) performance equates with poor Human Resource Management (HRM), and poor ethical and social responsibility. It represents a leadership or management failure to realize that safe community or organizations are more effective organizations. The provision of a safe and healthy working environment is important to all employees. Accidents and illness result in physical and mental suffering and are a major cost for employers and the community because of the loss of experienced workers and citizens, increased premiums for workers compensation insurance, decreased morale, lower productivity, reduced job satisfaction and increased labour turnover. This fact is increasing not being reorganized by successive Ghana governments.

The International Labour Organization estimated that globally, about 2.2 million die every year from occupational accidents and diseases, while some 270million suffer serious non-fatal injuries and another 160million fall ill for shorter or longer periods from work related causes. This represents an enormous toll of suffering for workers and their families. Furthermore, ILO estimated that the total costs of such accidents and ill health amount to approximately 4% of the World’s GDP. Other organisations have estimated that about 5% of the burden of diseases and injury in established market economies can be attributed to work, which corresponds roughly to the ILO’s figure. It is also worth mentioning a recent study by the European Commission which estimates that the costs of

What is Health and Safety at Work?

According to the ILO and World Health Organization (WHO) health and safety at work is aimed at the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations; It is also the prevention among workers of leaving work due to health problems caused by their working conditions; both ILO and WHO again say it is the protection of workers in their employment from risks resulting from factors adverse to health; again it says it is the placing and maintenance of the worker in an occupational environment adapted to his or her physiological and psychological capabilities; and, to summarize, it says it is the adaptation of work to the person and of each person to their job.

What is the situation?

Unscientific survey conducted by yours truly has it that here in Ghana occupational health and safety problems account for more lost production time than industrial disputes. This is largely because whereas elsewhere in the developed countries like Australia employers are under pressure from governments, investors, professional and community groups and unions to accept increased responsibility for employee health and safety. Of which these pressures have motivated federal and state governments to introduce tougher OHS legislation, same cannot be said of Ghana. In fact it is not a priority to the government of Ghana. No wonder culture is one of the most critical determinants of safety performance. It is surprising that Ghana has no comprehensive policies and legislation on public safety as well as occupational health and safety to indicate a commitment by government to workers’ and the citizenry’s health and safety.

Largely in the African region, work related threats to human health and life are becoming increasingly evident. A study of workers in gold mining in an east African country reported abnormally high concentrations of total mercury in the urine samples of miners exposed to mercury vapour during burning of gold-mercury amalgams. In the same country, there were injury rates between 10 and 18 per 1000 workers in mining, building and construction industries. In a West Africa, a study revealed abnormal lead levels in blood and urine samples of smelters, automobile mechanics and petroleum retailers.

In spite of all these work-related health findings, including psychosocial issues, only 5% to10% of workers in developing countries have access to occupational health services. In 2001, a survey conducted by the WHO Regional Office in Africa showed the lack of comprehensive occupational health services for workers in the Region in spite of various WHA resolutions. Of the countries surveyed, 63% conducted risk management; 41% provided information and education; 26% conducted pre-placement medical examinations; 33% provided clinical services for vaccinations, special examinations and treatment;7% conducted research, provided examination for compensation, developed human resources, provided education and counseling on HIV/AIDS and use of tobacco and collected data related to the health of workers.

The regional survey showed that 48% of the countries have occupational health legislation and 37% have legislation pertaining to labour and health but in both cases there is lack of adequate human resources to monitor applications.

In view of the foregoing it is therefore not surprising that here in Ghana road accidents, fire outbreaks as well as other public accidents are no longer NEWS. This is because it is has become a way of life for the average Ghanaian. In a spate of a fortnight two important state institutions like the Central Medical Stores of the Ghana Health Service and the Central Store of the Tamale Teaching Hospital are gutted by fire causing huge financial loss to the already cash strapped economy.

There are enough statistics to narrate how deep seated the situation is, however it is said that a health and safety problem can be described by statistics but cannot be understood by statistics. It can only be understood by knowing and feeling the pain, anguish, and depression and shattered hopes of the victim and of wives, husbands, parents, children, grandparents and friends, and the hope, struggle and triumph of recovery and rehabilitation in a world often unsympathetic, ignorant, unfriendly and unsupportive, only those with close experience of life altering personal damage have this understanding

As for the road accidents and floods the least said about it the better. Sometimes one wonders why duty bearers of this country have no shame. It is very pathetic.

The way forward!

Scores of commentary on the occurrences of accidents in the media indicate that the time is rife for Ghana to up its commitment at addressing these preventable occurrences’ in our country. If as a country we want to do safety differently, we must think differently. If we have a passion to change the world of risk and safety, we need to ‘think different’. If we look at risk and safety and see nothing changing, how will this improve with more of the same? We can even call something ‘different’ but if it boils down to more systems or humans as factors in systems then all that has changed is the label. If the paradigms of engineering and regulation are regurgitated and re-spun as ‘the next step’ what is really different? We can winge about the problems of risk and safety but if we are not prepared to suspend old ways of thinking for ‘different’ ways of thinking then how can things change? It’s time to reframe the debate and move away from the tired old stuff.

This notwithstanding attempting too big a change and / or changing things too quickly can create an adverse reaction and alienate the very people you want to make allies. It is imperative for us as a country to learn the context, culture and past before trying to make changes. Unless a crisis situation is apparent realize effective change requires a lot of effort and time.

The author is an Industrial Relations Practitioner with the Health Services’ Workers Union and a fellow at the Centre for Social Impact Studies (CeSIS) and can be reached on kwamemensahpah@gmail.com

Columnist: Mensah-Pah, Jerry Detse