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‘Growing concern over stress at the workplace’

Occupational Health & Safety Authority chief talks of the public’s ‘wrong’ perception that accidents at the workplace are on the increase.

Duncan Barry
9 July 2012, 12:00am
Some of the workplace-related accidents that have hit the headlines in recent months included the death of a Nigerian national in a Kirkop plant last month, and the death of another foreign national working at the Seabank Hotel in Mellieha, who died trapped under debris when part of the structure collapsed last April.

The Kirkop incident marked the fourth fatality at the place of work this year. In another incident, a worker sustained grievous injuries while working at a printing press in Luqa.

But in actual fact, are accidents at the workplace on the increase?

Gauci says that back in 2002, the number of injuries and fatalities at the workplace was quite staggering. This emphasised the importance of strengthening the Authority.

"Since then, we have seen a definite downward trend in injuries and fatality rates. In 2002, in the early stages of the functioning of the Authority's operation, there were about 8,000 accidents reported to have occurred. Today, they are down to 3,000 per year."

Yet, the perception out there is  that many accidents still take place - "a complete fallacy" - according to Gauci. "The rate of accidents has decreased significantly. This impression is formed because the media tends to send out the wrong message and fails to compare statistics when reporting work-related incidents.

"On comparing the number of workers to the accidents and fatalities that occur, one will find that it really isn't the case that accidents are on the increase. Obviously, if we could bring down accidents to zero it would be great, but as I always emphasise, although the OHSA ensures that all structures and adequate standards are seen to, it is also the duty of workers to ensure they take necessary measures and most of all the employers who are responsible for their workers' well-being."

Through sustained efforts of the Authority, much has changed over the years - no one doubts the heightened awareness concerning the need of having suitable and adequate levels of protection at all workplaces in Malta.

Gauci adds: "Appropriate preventative measures should be in place in all workplaces in Malta by now to minimise the possibility and severity of occupational incidents and illness. The ultimate goal is zero preventable incidents."

Although one might think that protective gear should top the list of regulations at the place of work, surprisingly, according to Gauci, "protective gear at the place of work doesn't top the list of regulations".

According to Gauci, the biggest challenge the OHSA is currently facing concerns small- and medium-sized enterprises, which are the hardest to reach out to when addressing health and safety issues. The main reason for this, Gauci says, is that they lack resources and funds. In fact, the majority of accidents that occur at the place of work is within SMEs.

The development of a culture which goes beyond the workplace, which adopts a holistic view of health and that values risk prevention is the prime objective of the OHSA. It strives to do so by creating - with its limited resources - awareness to bring about a changing culture in health and safety preventive measures in Malta.

Gauci says that "to ensure full health and safety requirements are being adhered to, one must be made aware of the benefits of introducing and implementing health and safety preventive measures at a place of work.

"Last year, we outsourced an extensive research project to obtain a snapshot of prevailing standards and to tackle areas where information was scarce. This research gave us a thorough indication of how many companies were actually fulfilling health and safety obligations, for instance.

"Part of the project involved a questionnaire asking how people they perceived OHSA. A good percentage of respondents said that the Authority was under-resourced, however the majority said that they were highly satisfied with the work carried out - recognising OHSA's role and importance."

How is the OHSA determining that the relevant structures and measures are being implemented at the workplace? Has OHSA seen a significant change in companies complying with such regulations?

"We are talking about a change in culture here. Several work practices have been going on for donkeys years - so one cannot expect a complete overhaul overnight.

"So implementing such measures hasn't been a walk in the park. However, the OHSA works in conjunction with all social partners whose aim is to improve and ensure health and safety. This is done by educating employers in recognising that it is in their best interest to provide their workforce with a healthy and safe environment."

Gauci points out that the OHSA is constantly gathering information to bring about more awareness, conducted through research, dissemination of material, in-house courses, mail shots, and the free downloading of important information from the OHSA's website to cover the most important aspects of health and safety.

He also says that the OHSA is the focal point for the European Agency for Safety and Health, whose objective is to raise awareness on the subject.

"In January the director of the European agency, Christa Sedlatschek, visited Malta and commended OHSA Malta's work and said that it's one of the agency's most active and innovative members in the whole of the European Union in terms of raising awareness."

According to statistics, Gauci says that between 2003 and 2007 foreign workers accounted for a disproportionate high percentage of accidents.

"A contributing factor to accidents at the workplace," Gauci claims, "was that certain clients were resorting to cheaper options by assigning foreign workers to perform high-risk jobs who use equipment deemed highly unsafe to perform such jobs," referring to 'Il-Pont' (a plank of wood suspended by ropes at both ends) used to access unreachable parts of a façade during the renovation and whitewashing of facades, instead of using safer options such as scaffolding or cranes.

"Nowadays, these are the kind of jobs Maltese workers prefer to steer away from, and now are being entrusted to foreigners, who, besides not having the proper equipment to execute such jobs, try reducing the burden of costs on their client, and risk their lives in doing so.

"But it's not the worker himself who is only responsible for his own actions, it's also the responsibility of the people who assign such tasks to unprofessional workers who are contributing to this problem.

"And communicating with the majority of foreign workers may also be problematic at times due to the language barrier. How can one communicate the message through of the risks involved while making them aware of existing preventive measures, if they don't understand the languages we speak?"

There is still a number of associated work practices that were inherently unsafe, and measures had to be implemented gradually.

The OHSA's CEO says that "people had to be persuaded that the way they were doing things was deemed unsafe".

Health and safety at work involves both the protection of the physical and psychological aspects of a worker.

"Depending on the nature of the work, employees can encounter specific risks which in turn effect different organs of the body. The effects can vary from dermatitis to eczema to stress and cancer and problems related to bad posture, to asthma, and melanoma and extreme heat stress due to long sun exposure.

"People working on the outside - especially during summer, when the sun's UV rays are strong - are highly susceptible to melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Rays can have a dual effect - heat stress, while undergoing heavy manual work on a very hot day as well as a more serious problem - melanoma. And as if that weren't enough, cosmic rays can also effect both the skin and eyes."

Employers have a duty to provide employees with ergonomic chairs since poor posture at work is a major cause of back pain, workplace stress, repetitive strain injury, resulting in lost time, reduced productivity, poor employee health, low morale, and higher costs.

The CEO says that "maintaining the right posture is very important but it is also the duty and responsibility of an employer to supply workers with ergonomic (adjustable) seating, in compliance with health and safety regulations."

Work-related stress: an emerging risk

Stress, meanwhile, is also a common factor at the workplace and is a major cause for concern. This arises where work demands of various types and combinations exceed the person's capacity and capability to cope. It is a significant cause of illness and disease and is known to be linked with high levels of sickness absence, staff turnover and other indicators of organisational underperformance - including human error.

According to a recent study, 50 to 60% fail to report to work due to stress-related problems at work. In a separate survey, OHSA determined that 10% of respondents had suffered from 'confirmed' stress at the workplace, meaning the individuals were diagnosed and certified by a physician to have been suffering from chronic stress.

"It is the structure of a workplace that is contributing to high stress levels. Stress can come about when a worker is either assigned too much work, assigned work beyond his/her capabilities, is harassed or bullied, adding that "if an employer is found to have been aware of such circumstances, and did nothing to help resolve the situation and take the necessary action, he or she is liable to legal action."

Exposure to radiation

Ionising radiation occurs as either electromagnetic rays (such as X-rays and gamma rays) or particles (such as alpha and beta particles).

People can be exposed externally to radiation from radioactive material or X-ray machines or gamma rays, or internally, by inhaling or ingesting radioactive substances. Electromagnetic fields (EMFs) arise whenever electrical energy is used. So for example, EMFs arise in our home from electrical appliances in the kitchen, from work processes such as radio frequency heating and drying and in the world at large from radio, TV and telecoms broadcasting masts.

Gauci says that "there is a specific inter-ministerial board - the Radiation Protection Board - comprising of the OHSA, MEPA and the Public Health Department, to ensure safety in the management of equipment that emit such waves.

According to Gauci, a parliamentary committee is currently assessing whether cell phone towers are posing a danger to workers. OHSA has also been invited to discuss the issue with the committee and the overall message is that until now, no evidence has been found on the ill-effects due to the positioning of cell phone towers on premises.

"Nothwithstanding all this, when operating these antennas, workers must ensure they take all precautionary steps to ensure maximum safety."

Bottling companies, for instance,  also use radioactive sources to ensure level-filling of minerals in bottles.

Gauci says that "the equipment used emits radiation when inspecting fill levels in bottles. This is a cause for concern and bottling companies are consistently monitored to test radiation levels."

Do most companies have an emergency plan in place?

Gauci says that a number of sites in Malta are regulated by a specific set of rules: the control of major accidents/hazards regulations.

"These accident-prone sites require particular attention since they store fuel or chemicals which may be of a detriment both to workers and people living closeby. Therefore, these sites require both internal and external emergency plans and reports.

"On the other hand, it's in the interest of all companies to organise fire drills and have an evacuation plan in hand as well, and abide by OHSA regulations to ensure maximum protection of workers."

In this regard, the OHSA organises introductory in-house courses on risk assessments, manual handling, among other subjects.

Looking forward, what are the OHSA's future plans?

"First and foremost, a lot has been achieved over the past 10 years but there's still a lot of work to be done. The Authority will not rest on its laurels, but will continue working to achieve even more, in the interests of employees, employers and Maltese society.

"Another thing is that we cannot keep up with the demand, we are victims of our own success. Demand on the OHSA has grown considerably and this is evident from the number of enquiries and requests we get to supply information, and answering to queries. Therefore, we are working with a lack of resources in a highly-demanding environment.

"Finally, the working environment is constantly changing, so both the OHSA and the industry as a whole has to keep abreast of any developments.

"The vast majority of enterprises in Malta are SME's and this can pose a problem at times where structures and enforcement are concerned.

"Occupational health and safety is one of those subjects that requires the full participation of all social partners, and the OHSA cannot be the only entity to oversee such progress but requires the integration of all stakeholders."

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