Features — 24 March 2018
The OSH delay: a commentary on the OSH Bill

We see it all the time. We see a Belizean pushing a lawn mower, and they are wearing cha-cha-cha on their feet. We see people riding motorbikes, and they have no helmets on, no proper shoes on, and improper clothing on. We see people driving cars and trucks on the highways, and they have no seatbelts on.

At the least, the passing of the OSH Bill (Occupational Safety and Health Bill) into law would create awareness in the Belizean populace about the need for safety on the job, at work for an employer or for self. The bill that was introduced in 2014 is a lot more ambitious than that. Maybe it is too ambitious. Maybe that’s why it has been sitting on a desk between the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) and the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) ever since.

The OSH bill that was introduced seeks to, among other things, “secure the safety, health and welfare of workers at work; protect persons other than workers against risks; promote a safe and healthy occupational environment for workers that protects them from injury and occupational disease and that is adapted to their safety, health, physiological and psychological needs,”

To ensure compliance with the provisions of the OSH, the bill calls for a National Occupational Safety and Health Authority, comprising of “two representatives nominated by the National Trade Union Congress of Belize; a representative nominated by the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry; a representative nominated by the Belize Business Bureau; a representative who in the opinion of the Minister is qualified and suitable; a representative of the Social Security Board who is responsible for occupational safety and health matters; a representative of the Ministry of Health who is responsible for occupational safety and health matters; the Labour Commissioner or his representative; a representative from the Central Building Authority; a representative from the Pesticides Control Board; a representative from the Belize Agricultural Health Authority; and the Chief Inspector appointed under section 50 of this Act.”

Adele Ramos, reporting in the Amandala of January 28, 2014, said that when PM Barrow introduced the OSH bill to the House of Representatives, he said the objectives of the bill were “laudable”, but “it is fair to point out that this bill, if made law, is going to come at a huge financial cost.”

What Barrow had to say about the OSH bill in the House when he introduced it, probably explains the long delay. Continuing with Ms. Ramos’s report, Barrow “said that it is perhaps time, and maybe even overdue, that Belize makes this quantum leap forward, but, he said, let nobody be under any illusion about the substantial burden and cost that will come to the Government, as regulator and employer, as well as to the private sector, including small business persons and self-employed individuals, who will also have to become compliant—even if they employ just one person.

“The OSH Bill, as drafted, carries some severe penalties for non-compliance. Section 80 (1) says, ‘Any person who contravenes any provision of this Act, regulations made thereunder or any order or notice issued by the Authority, commits an offence against this Act and is liable on conviction (a) in the case of a natural person, to a fine not exceeding twenty-five thousand dollars or imprisonment for a term not exceeding twelve months; (b) in the case of a corporate or unincorporated body, to a fine not exceeding two hundred and fifty thousand dollars or imprisonment for a term not exceeding thirty six months.’”

Reporting on the OSH Bill on August 15, 2015, the Reporter’s Alexis Milan said the NTUCB thought “the OSH Bill would actually reduce business cost and result in less disruption. The union maintains that having the Bill in place would lower the rate of disability and injury. The union also said the Bill would reduce workers’ compensation costs as well as reducing lost workdays and limit equipment damage”, and “The union also maintains that having and enforcing the OSH Bill would build a more competent and healthier workforce while reducing staff turnover and reduce the risk and costs of fines and litigation.”

Countering that, Nikita Usher, President, Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry, speaking to Channel Five on January 24, 2017, said: “As it stands currently, the Chamber is not in support of the OSH Bill. As it stands currently, there has to be some enhancements to it and that is the process we are going through.”

Amandala’s Rowland Parks reported that NTUCB president, Floyd Neal, speaking on the languishing OSH bill at the NTUCB AGM on March 6, 2018, was confident of getting the job done, despite so much water passing under the bridge since the bill was introduced, in 2014. Parks said Neal told the members at the AGM: “It would be remiss of me not to mention that Belize has still not enacted an Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) law. Given the expedient cop-out that Business and Labor have been unable to reach consensus on what our OSH law should contain, be assured that NTUCB has joined with the Belize Chamber of Commerce & Industry to arrive at just such a law.”

The Belizean people are waiting to see it. Until such time we will just say that it will take some doing for the parties to arrive at consensus. The good news is that it isn’t as if we are about inventing the wheel, for there are considerable established guidelines out there about how to keep workers safe from occupational hazards. Belize, however, might have to adapt these guidelines to suit our conditions and the depth of our pocket. We cannot dilute safety measures to the extent that they become ineffective, and we cannot invest so much in making the environment risk-free that we cannot afford the tools and the materials to get the job done.

We also cannot afford to carry on as usual. Safety, as they say, is everybody’s business. There is a cost to individuals when they get hurt. There is pain or illness, and there is lost time. If the individual is an employed person, their employer or insurer will bear much of the cost of repairing their injury and their down time. For the nation, it is always a loss when her “greatest resource” is laid up in bed, convalescing.

A practical OSH law, adapted for Belize, is a necessity. At the very least it will increase national awareness about the importance of safety in the workplace.

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Deshawn Swasey

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