President of the Public Services Association (PSA) Watson Duke has found in “sick buildings” a new grievance and useful cause célèbre to cement his leadership. His unflagging prosecution of this issue has put the country on notice for continual labour unrest, with predictable inconvenience to citizens and institutional injury to the Public Service.
Taking protest action outside the usual wage-negotiations period, Mr Duke has, without precedent or warning, emerged in the role of national spoiler, shutting down buildings where Government employees had previously been operating without complaint. He has led a charge against conditions held to not meet standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), by his tally shutting down 20 buildings in which 5,000 people worked. Based on his own diagnosis, Mr Duke is demanding instant corrective action and invoking employees’ right not to work in any conditions that are less than totally optimal.
The PSA and its president can be credited for bringing to the fore too-long-ignored occupational safety conditions. This is especially scandalous in light of the hundreds of millions of dollars the Government pays annually to rent and to buy—but apparently not maintain—its offices. At the same time, the Occupational Safety and Health Authority and other officials seem to be supine to Mr Duke’s commands, rather than querying whether he is on solid legal and, indeed, scientific grounds.
In one case, for example, the putative cause for walkout was asbestos—an issue which scientific analysis proved over two decades ago was based on exaggerated fear of the link between asbestos and cancer, since only people who worked directly with the material had a higher incidence of the disease. Similarly, Mr Duke has justified shutdowns by claiming staff has been falling ill because of poor environmental conditions—a claim which should be testable.
Also, the OSH Act throughout uses the caveat “so far as is reasonably practicable”, while Section 15 specifies an employee can refuse to work only if there is “serious and imminent danger to himself”. Mr Duke’s complaints about dirty carpets and unserviced air-conditioners hardly meet this definition, and such issues can be fixed without shutdowns.
However, by invoking the nuclear option of closing buildings, threatening to shut down others and denying services to members of an already long-suffering public, Mr Duke is using hysteria in order to flex union muscle.
The most effective response would be for public and private employers to bring the work spaces under their charge up to the level required by law. By so doing, they would help ensure, in national industrial relations, Mr Duke does not continue to have the upper hand he so urgently seeks to enjoy.