Attention to accident prevention | Daily News

Attention to accident prevention

The country is witnessing rapid urbanization and as the city expands further into the hinterland, it brings with it various pitfalls, and the biggest one of all is lack of emphasis on management of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH).

Last month, the country was shocked at the collapse of the Excellency building in Wellawatte. For a few weeks, many tracked down the authorities that had granted permission for such a building to be built and many put out theories on why it had collapsed. Few however, looked into the victims of the collapse; the construction workers themselves who came to be in such a dangerous situation. A handful looked into the wider issue of occupational safety within industries and construction sites in general, and this issue has been ignored by the relevant authorities though safety management is all about preventing occupational injuries and creating a safer environment for the employees.

We definitely have serious lapses in the existing occupational safety sector where Sri Lanka is concerned, said National Institute of Occupational safety and Health (NIOSH) Director General Dr. Champika Amarasinghe, speaking to the Daily News.

“They do not understand that the injuries can cause health impairment. Injuries cause destructive consequences not only to the victim but also to the family and to the society as well,” she added.

Occupational injuries – not considered as a major issue

The number of injuries as a result of lack of attention to health and safety has increased considerably over the years. As a result, the Non-Communicable Disease Unit, the National Focal Point for Injury Prevention in the Ministry of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine, has formulated the National Policy and Strategic Framework on Injury Prevention in collaboration with other relevant ministries, professionals and civil society.

In the Cabinet memorandum on the National Framework, the Health Ministry revealed that road traffic accidents were the number one cause for injury related deaths claiming around 2,500 lives annually.

Moreover, accidents related to poisoning, falls, drowning, violence, suicides and homicides also claimed more than thousand lives annually. While more than a million people get inward care, many more are affected due to injuries.

Health Ministry data also further noted that trauma was the leading cause of hospitalization in Sri Lanka; accounting for almost 600,000 patients per year in government hospitals.

The ministry thus highlighted that the burden of injuries was projected to increase in the next decade as a result of the rapid changes in lifestyles of people due to urbanization, industrialization, mechanization and infrastructure development if appropriate preventive strategies were not implemented.

Despite the wide consultations however, the Ministry of Labour and Trade Union Relations which is the responsible authority to regularize industrial safety and health, one of the officials attached to the ministry said that they were not consulted when formulating the above national policy.

He said that the ministry on its own was taking measures to prevent injuries caused to the work force.

Occupational injuries are not reported regularly

The National Institute of Occupational safety and Health (NIOSH) is a self-financing body under the Ministry of Labour and Trade Union Relations. This institute was formed upon the need to promote total physical and emotional well-being among working Sri Lankans by providing information, training, education, research, surveys, solutions and management systems that ensure progressive safety and health in working environments.

Amarasinghe said globally, 2.3 million people die due to work related accidents and yet in Sri Lanka, very little attention is paid to this sector.

“There is also a view that injuries are caused only in constructions sites, which is not true,” she said. She further explained that road accidents have been ignored and they are not considered as occupational injury or death caused while working.

“Road accidents of drivers should also be added to the occupational fatalities. But, they are neglected,” she said.

Amarasinghe claimed that as a result, occupational injuries are not reported accordingly.

“Accident information collection does not function well and many cases are not reported. With the increase of high rise buildings, the issue has been taken to another level. There are no proper statistics to reveal or there are no evidence to speak in numbers,” she said.

Need to ensure safety and health at construction sites

Amarasinghe highlighted that according to the Factories Ordinance, the injuries need to be reported by the employer, but that has not been happening.

“The occupational injuries especially at the construction sites are not being reported,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Labour Ministry official said that the system has not been active, but the ministry was taking several initiatives currently with the increase in high rise buildings and construction sites in the country.

Amarasinghe said the work force of Sri Lanka was around 8.7 million and it is the responsibility of the relevant authorities to create awareness and assist the labour force of the country.

Factory Inspecting Engineers attached to the Ministry of Labour and Trade Relations are responsible with regard to checking on the quality of construction and ensuring the safety of the employees. And yet, ministry sources revealed that they do not have enough Factory Inspecting Engineers and that they need to increase their cadre.

The source said that with the increase of construction sites and development buildings in Colombo and other areas, it has been a challenge for the officers to manage it all.

“Sometimes, the employers try to hide the work related injuries caused to the employees and they settle the issue by providing them compensation. The existing system has to be strengthened further,” he said.

Meanwhile, Amarasinghe said, Sri Lanka did not have proper guidelines and no national standards to ensure occupational safety and health.

She further said that NIOSH had the authority to inspect the places only if the employer or the company requested the institution and even then they did not have powers to take legal action against the employer and added that the power to inspect the construction sites and factories lay in the hands of the Department of Labour. Amarasinghe said the public were also not aware of these and they do not tend to inform it to the relevant institution.

The NIOSH thus far has been able to train nearly 1,500 safety officers.

“We do training programmes when the industries or the employers request us to do so. Even the industrial owners have a responsibility to reduce the amount of occupational accidents,” she said.

Healthy workers equal productive workers

Industrial Hygienist Ramya Jamburegoda said that the work place needed to be safe and hygienic to minimise occupational injuries and accidents and to prevent workplace diseases in order to improve the productivity of the industry by a healthy work force.

“It should create an environment for the employees to work with minimum danger. Dust and noise are two major problems in the occupation sector. The employees face many long term health impairment due employers failing to test and take measures to ensure their health and well- being,” she said.

Speaking further on the hygiene and health safety in the construction sector, she said the government authorities with power and the employers are responsible for the well-being of the employees.

She said that as a developing country it was necessary to ensure the safety of the Sri Lankan work force.

B.P.L.M. Ranjith, a Construction Engineer from Colombo in the meantime, explained that while they always insisted that the workers wear their boots and helmets while working, they tend to ignore their advice.

He agreed that they did not usually inform the Department of Labour when an employee was injured.

“We try to solve it among ourselves. We do not report it, the employer would give compensation and solve the problem,” he said.

A.P. Gunawardena an engineer who also supervises more than three high rise buildings in Colombo said that recently the government institutions have been more concerned whether the constructions are authorised or not but they do not check on the occupational safety of the employees.

“I have been involved in the construction sector for more than two decades. I have seen the consequences of improper hygiene and safety in the construction field. Therefore, I always ensure that the employees wear all the required equipment while they are engaged in work,” he said.

Gunawardena further said that safety measures are usually taken by the employers and the construction engineers and added that they do not seek help from any government institution to ensure safety.

“We need not want to tarnish the name of our construction company, therefore we ensure that our employees are safe and healthy,” he said. Another engineer from Colombo M.L. Weerakoon said that it was very hard for him to convince the employees at the construction site to wear helmets.

“They did not want to wear helmets before, but now it is slowly changing. We finally managed to convince them to wear helmets,” he said.

As the country gears towards steady and incremental economic growth, Amarasinghe pointed out that it was very important and timely to invest and improve the health of the workers who would be taking Sri Lanka forward. 


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