Port safety, worker health

It is extremely disconcerting for the society, and needless to say for the government, when protest actions and break down in industrial relations take place. It is evident that the society itself is a major stakeholder, particularly as the country sets its sights on sustained economic growth and the types of socio-economic recovery that will stimulate job creation and job growth. It is said that: “Behind each safety statistic though, resides an individual. And, behind this individual, resides friends, family and colleagues. When incidents occur the humanitarian impact of injury or death is always far-reaching.”

Hence, the happenings that occurred on Monday at the Antigua Port Authority are unfortunate. The news suggested that the major reason advanced to defend strike action came about due to the workers and their union taking a stance against inappropriate safety measures and health protection regarding the appropriate clothing. This situation is counterproductive for all stakeholders.

There can be no doubt that the policymakers, the Board, and the management at the Port Authority have managed to turn around things – at least financially, even if aided by the main Government. In fact, all of the indicators do point to the fact that 2015 was a much more productive year for the port given the operational streamlining and more effective management practices.

However, the fact that there is haste to appease the workers’ demands for safety equipment inclusive of hard-hats, boots, and other worn accessories, suggest that there was a very serious lapse which existed. This has to be the conclusion, if one follows a logical path and the things that will be done over the next few weeks. Injury or death, God forbid, could cost the Government and all stakeholders more in the long run, than if occupational safety was a guiding factor from the onset.

It offers little satisfaction, if any, to say that the safety standards that should obtain in 2016 were left neglected by the previous administration during its tenure in government. There is no sense speaking now on the neglectful oversight of the previous Port Authority Board. More pertinent, has to be the necessity for the current administration and port management to set high standards, particularly as it relates to occupational safety if indeed Antigua and Barbuda is to attain the goal of being the economic powerhouse in the region.

Caribbean Times contends that two sets of things must come into play as this country forges a new pathway to social and economic development at the national level, and which will stand up to international scrutiny with best practices in place. Health protection and health promotion must be viewed by all stakeholders as important condiments to a health society and economy.

As one research suggests, health protection encompasses “the activities that protect workers from occupational injury and illness,” and ranges from basic safety training to the use of protective gear, work organisation, and safety-enhancing modifications within the spatial context of the specific workplace. On the other hand, health promotion, by contrast encompasses “the activities that maintain or improve the personal health of a workforce.” These will often range from health risk assessments to wellness initiatives and immunisations.

Perhaps, the management at the Port Authority alongside the workers, need to listen more to the practicality of the current Minister of Health and the Environment. As far as Caribbean Times can recall, Minister Joseph has repeatedly spoken about the wellness of the society, the reduction if not elimination of non-communicable diseases, the management of stress and stressors in the workplace, and the fact that there are serious cost implications regarding the economy when health and safety are neglected or are not prioritised.

Regards of how negligent the previous management of the Port was to allow situations to deteriorate to uncomfortable levels that would eventually put a strain on the entire economy, it becomes imperative that the current team, and tied to their improved results thus far, prioritise occupational safety in all of its various facets.

The current administration must make it a policy arena in which overcomes the lack of integration between health protection and health promotion. To continue doing so may appear as effective management of financial resources, but that is far from the truth. The incongruence of proper health protection standards against the dismal emphasis on health promotion is counterproductive for sustained economic growth. The distancing of these ideals prevents optimal resource utilisation and impedes efforts to maximise the overall health and productivity of the workforce.

Taken to the extremes, the neglect allows for the type of disruption that appeared on Monday (not for the first time), and can serve to destabilise or even setback the gains that have been achieved with the turnaround of operations at the Port. It makes good practical sense that a culture of safety becomes infused at the Port, and then the Port can be used as an example of the many things positive that can be achieved regarding health protection and health promotion; and achieved regarding the growth of the society and economy.

Caribbean Times draws initial relief that measures are being fast-tracked to remedy these safety issues. However, the culture of safety must become part of the discipline needed in the rebuilding of the Antigua and Barbuda economy, sufficient that the country will become the economic powerhouse in the region. Hence, this newspaper concludes that: “The health and safety road is long and winding. Regulators, legislators, training providers and industry must travel down it together, navigating a clear course of direction towards an even safer future for workers, the public and the environment.”