World Day for Health and Safety in the Workplace for 2007 was observed on April 28th .  It is a day designated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and was observed worldwide under the theme ‘my work, my life, my safe work – managing risk in the workplace”.   In St Kitts-Nevis, Social Security teamed up with the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Health to hold a symposium that drew attention to the issues.

According to the ILO website, every year more than 2 million people die from occupational accidents or work-related diseases and every day, on average, some 5,000 or more women and men around the world lose their lives because of work-related accidents and illness.

The ILO has also standardised work as we know it into 17 different categories against which every ILO member is required to report.  Thus, one of our tasks upon registration of a business, is to determine which class that business best fits.

At home, we recorded 352 incidents for 2007, most of which (84) were in the construction industry.  Most persons at the seminar seemed to have expected that. What they didn’t expect is that the sector called Public Administration & Defence; Compulsory Social Security would report the second highest number of incidents at 64.  The Hotels/Restaurant/Guest House sector was also prominent with 61 incidents as was Wholesale & Retail trade; repair of motor vehicles, motorcycles, personal & household goods with 41 incidents   A possible explanation for the prominence of these sectors of the economy in the incidence of work related problems is that these are the areas where most persons are employed.  Indeed, these four classes accounted for 837 (or 47%) of all business registered in the Federation in 2006 and approximately 63% (over 17,000) of all the jobs (not workers as some persons do multiple jobs).

At Social Security for the said period, we paid 881 benefit types, mostly injury (565) and medical expenses (243).  We paid to send 19 persons for overseas treatment.  Lacerations, breaks/fractures, trauma and burns were the most common injuries reported by the doctors and the back and the limbs (upper and lower) were most affected.   Thankfully, only about 4% of reported incidents were diseases that resulted from the workplace and there were no deaths.

When historical data is examined, there is no significant increase in the number of work related incidents from year to year – and indeed, those reported in the Agricultural sector showed a marked decline in the last 3 years, especially since the re-organisation of the sugarcane industry.   In 2007, these incidents resulted in payments of $1,070,000.00.    This is an 8% increase in payments on the year before.   In addition, these injured people were off work for almost 8000 days. (There are 230 -235 working days per year).   This seems to suggest, among other things, that work related incidents are becoming more and more severe, and care has become more sophisticated.

So why is Social Security concerned?  Well, we are the ones who manage workplace insurance through our Employment Injury Branch – that extra 1% of wages that only the employer is required to pay.  It covers accidents and incidents in the workplace and sometimes on the way to work and on the way home from work, especially when the journey is done in an employer-approved transportation. Under this branch, Social Security pays for wage replacement, medical bills, funeral, disability, survivors’ pension, overseas travel costs and constant care allowance.

What can you do to stay safe and create a healthy workplace?  Be sensible. Wear appropriate protective gear at all times.  Follow all safety guidelines at all times.  Be alert at all times.  Educate yourself about the hazards of the job.  Eat well, sleep well, keep your body drug free.  Different industries have different requirements, so know what is required and do it until it becomes habit.  Fashion must take a back seat to safety. That young construction worker who pulled up his pants 10 times in 15 minutes is putting himself and his colleagues at risk.  Simple, isn’t it?   But then we have always been told to pay attention to the simple things in life!   On our part, we carefully examine each case, work closely with the Ministries of Labour and Health to determine what trends are emerging, and then organize seminars to share the information and suggestions with the stakeholders at workshops such as I referred to earlier.

During the symposium, we learnt of bosses who allowed workers to dispense with protective gear so that productivity could be enhanced.  The end result was the loss of several of the worker’s fingers, a small monetary payout by the boss, and the eventual replacement of the now disfigured worker.  We also heard of a man who almost lost his sight to male machismo.  We recognize that in our climate, some of the protective gear causes some discomfort, but wouldn’t you prefer discomfort over disfigurement and paralysis?   I agree about the discomfort, and call upon the ILO to institute research to develop more climate appropriate material for the protection of workers.

The ILO report states that accidents and diseases at work often have several contributory causes; organizational, physical and human factors.  The interpretation of this is that they are often preventable.

Reg is therefore right.  And he is wrong.  Social Security is interested in getting people back to work quickly, but we are more interested in preventing them from getting injured in the first place.  That is why we will continue to partner with the ministries of Health and of Labour until every worker in St Kitts and Nevis can enjoy what the ILO calls “decent work.”