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Still too many occupational safety challenges in T&T

By By Colin Gaskin, B.Sc., M.Sc. Head of Construction Unit The Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA)

Regulating the construction industry continues to be a challenge, not just for Trinidad and Tobago's Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSH Agency) but for regulatory agencies internationally.

There are distinctive characteristics and trends that set this industry apart from others and make an impact on labour inspection.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act 2004 (as amended) (OSH Act) include construction sites within the definition of 'industrial establishments' and Section 5(4) specifies that 'this Act binds the state.'

All construction sites are therefore subjected to inspection by the OSH Agency; both private and public sector worksites, including projects owned by the State and quasi-State bodies.

As a direct result of the construction boom and deficient provisions for health and safety on several project sites throughout Trinidad and Tobago, an increase in accidents and incidents was noted prior to the economic slowdown.

Trench related activities and work at heights are particularly high-risk and gave rise to the most fatalities on construction sites from 2005-2007.

There were also a significant number of construction site related electrocutions within this period.

In 2005 the construction sector in Trinidad and Tobago directly employed 101, 820 people (Central Bank Data Centre) and in that year 24 per cent of all industrial fatalities arose from this sector.

In 2006, a renewed initiative was taken by the then Occupational Safety and Health Unit of the Ministry of Labour and Small and Micro Enterprise Development to collaborate with planning organisations, government agencies and professional organisations to facilitate the regulation of this industry. Consequent to the increasing number of major construction projects in Trinidad and Tobago and the increase in the number of accident notifications from this sector, an enhanced inspection programme (blitz) was initiated in October 2007 and was completed in March 2008.

There are several contributing factors for the high fatality rate in the construction industry.

Firstly the construction industry is inherently hazardous.

In fact the International Labour Organisation (ILO) identifies it as one of the most hazardous industries in the world, with agriculture, logging and mining being other highly dangerous industrial sectors.

The construction industry, by its very nature, is labour intensive and in spite of advances in mechanisation, does not lend itself to automation and even off-site prefabrication has its limitations.

Transient workers in this industry are less likely to be properly trained.

Additionally, the skill levels in this industry are lower to comparable categories in the manufacturing sector and this factor is not unrelated to the number of accidents experienced by construction workers.

There is also a low rate of unionisation and a high degree of subcontracting and unfortunately, health and safety is frequently compromised during this type of commercial bargaining.

The integrity of scaffolding erected on construction sites throughout Trinidad and Tobago is a point of concern.

In some cases, these structures are locally manufactured to questionable standards. What increases the danger in this practice is the fact that scaffolding is often used as an anchorage point for fall arrest equipment.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards of the United States (CFR 1926.502(d)(15)) anchorages used for the attachment of fall arrest equipment should be capable of supporting at least 5,000 lbs per person attached, or maintain a 2-1 safety factor. A 2-1 safety factor means that if the manufacturer of a personal fall arrest system guarantees that it will limit the impact force to 1,800 lbs then the anchorage point should hold 3,600 lbs.

Scaffolding, a fundamental element of construction projects, may be deemed 'a place of work' under the OSH Act. Accordingly employers and occupiers have specific duties with regard to these structures, these are included in provisions detailed in Sections 6(2)(e), 8(4), 13(1) and 13(3) of the Act.

The local construction industry is also influenced by the forces of globalisation and the construction sector has provided business opportunities for a number of multinational corporations (MNCs).

Globalisation however, generates an intense competition for labour and this has a profound effect on both developed and underdeveloped countries. Consequently, migrant workers have become a common sight on local construction projects.

The ILO identifies migrant workers as being particularly vulnerable to accidents and exploitation. These workers may not be aware of site safety and health issues.

Policies need to be adapted to take into account the greater risks to which migrant workers are exposed, such as language and cultural barriers, together with a lack of awareness of rights and irregular contracts.

When a risk assessment is formulated under Section 13A of the OSH Act, these factors should be considered.

Construction related Regulations and Code of Practice have been identified for development and several standards impacting on the industry are in the pipeline.

Specifically, the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations 2007 of the United Kingdom (UK) has been earmarked to be used as a working document to develop regulations and an associated Code of Practice for Trinidad and Tobago.

These Regulations came into force on April 6, 2007 in the UK and replaced the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations 1994.

The main purpose of these regulations is to integrate safety and health into the management of the project, from the design concept onwards.

Significant progress has also been made with the formulation of standards for this industry.

The final draft of the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards (TTBS) compulsory standard for Contractor Safety Management has been prepared. This standard will serve as a guide for contractors wishing to trade their services in Trinidad and Tobago.

Additionally it is envisioned that the enforcement of the elements and criteria of this standard will be executed by the clients that seek the services of contractors, and further, refuse entry to their sites if they do not conform to these requirements.

In order to effectively regulate this industry however, the OSH Agency must be aware of all worksites that are required to be identified under Section 63 of the OSH Act. Building operations and works of engineering construction, which are likely to extend beyond a period of six weeks, are notifiable. That is, a written notice of such operation must be served on the Chief Inspector by the person undertaking the operations or works no later than seven days after the beginning of such project. The prescribed forms are available at the OSH Agency or can be downloaded from the OSHA website at www.ttosha.com. In conclusion, promoting safety on construction sites is a shared responsibility among regulators, clients, designers, engineers, contractors and subcontractors.

Some contractors have taken the initiative to join hands with the OSH Agency in their efforts to achieve higher site safety and health standards. It is desirable to inculcate a positive safety culture within this industry and indeed all industrial sectors to drive for sustained improvement; this is becoming increasingly important especially against a background of rapid and complex advancement in technology and rapidly changing working conditions and work processes. Occupational safety and health culture management in our local construction industry presents a significant challenge to some organisations. However an improved OSH culture in Trinidad and Tobago would entail a decreased likelihood of injuries and fatalities.

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