‘It would be wrong to perceive OHSA as the one-all-be-all’

Dr Mark Gauci

Last Updated on Thursday, 4 November, 2021 at 11:42 am by Andre Camilleri

CEO, Dr Mark Gauci of the Occupational Health and Safety Authority discusses the role of the authority at the workplace and how more holistic organisation is needed to avoid fatal accidents with Dayna Camilleri Clarke.

How many onsite visits has the authority conducted in the past two years, and how many were fined? Are you striving to increase on- site visits?

From January 2020 till the end of October of this year, OHSA carried out a total of 8758 visits. Since the beginning of this year, there were also 112 judicial cases appointed within the Court of Magistrates in Malta and in the Gozo Court.

OHSA considers enforcement as being one of its key core functions since it ensures that duty holders remain adequately in control of risks at their place of work. A safe environment can only be achieved if duty holders act in a manner that is commensurate with the degree of risk.  It is in those circumstances where no such action is taken, that OHSA intervenes within the legal perimeters and takes any action permitted by law.

One should also mention that from data extrapolated from findings of the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-3), Malta fared well in the area of visits by OHS Officers to enterprises in the three years prior to the survey. Whereas there was a sharp reduction in the EU-27, Malta saw an increase in this area and was also markedly above the EU-27 average. Indeed, Malta fared better than countries such as Ireland, Germany, Sweden and Spain amongst others.

Nevertheless, one cannot stress enough that it would be wrong to perceive OHSA as the one-all-be-all. Society needs to start looking at what the duty-holders are doing and bring them to task rather than focusing totally on OHSA, which after all only has a monitoring role.

What’s been the biggest challenge for you since taking up this role?

The biggest challenge relates to society’s misdirected interest at OHSA – if only society would start to query whether duty holders are fulfilling their duties, then things can only improve.

Increasing safety requirements come at a cost, i.e. providing hard hats for all. Who is required to provide and foot these expenses? The employer or employee?

Employers are duty bound to safeguard the safety and health of all workers at all times in every aspect related to the work being carried out and to conduct a risk assessment of all work activities to assess the risks to which workers are exposed at work. Workers should be consulted and allowed to participate in such an exercise and its follow-up protective and preventive measures.

The general principles of prevention are reflected in a hierarchy of controls that starts with the controls perceived to be most effective and moves down to those considered least effective. The most effective measures are those that physically eliminate the hazard followed by the replacement or substitution of the hazard. The next two steps call for the use of engineering controls to isolate people from the hazard followed using administrative controls to change the way that people work. Protecting workers with personal protective equipment (such as hard hats) is the last resort.

The creator of risk, normally the employer, is required to foot the bill regarding all measures.

Don’t you think that more should be done with regards to safety? If so, what plans are there. If not, why not?

It is wrong to think that accidents only happen in Malta, which has an average rate of accidents which is markedly lower than the European average.

Moreover, from statistics collated through official data provided by NSO, DSS and the Labour Force Survey, the downward trends in both the number and more significantly, the rate of industrial injuries (for which a claim for a benefit under the Social Security Act has been filed), remain evident.

The ESENER-3 Survey also shows that Malta has seen a positive improvement in various areas covered in the survey when compared with the previous one as well as when compared to other EU countries. 

Do you think that fines should increase, and if need be, legal action should be taken in certain circumstances?

The Occupational Health and Safety Authority Act already provides for judicial action to be taken against defaulters, with maximum fines of €11,466 and two years’ imprisonment.

Moreover, legal regulations which came into force in 2012 enabled OHSA to intimate for the payment of penalties for a list of OHS infringements and include the amount of penalties to be paid.

Do you agree that too much construction work is happening in our country that carelessness, pollution and lack of safety are present?

That is a highly subjective comment. Whereas construction activity has increased dramatically, one has to acknowledge the large number of sites where preventive and protective measures are being taken. A lot of people’s complaints concern issues outside the applicability of the OHS Authority Act, and relate to nuisances, dust, noise, time of carrying out work, traffic management, pedestrian safety, safety of third-party properties, civil law grievances etc, none of which fall under the OHS Authority Act.

Have you voiced your concerns with your minister? and what was his feedback?

Whereas meetings with the Minister are held regularly, OHSA’s report of activities is discussed every year in Parliament. The overall response in Parliament is that OHSA is doing a great job and that it is fulfilling its legal obligations admirably.

What happened to Lamin Jaitch is unacceptable. What is the authority doing to protect these workers? As we can see, construction sites work with high numbers of migrant workers.

The incident to Jaiteh is one of several which occur within the construction industry every year, most of which are preventable but still occur for various reasons – it has already been pointed out that the construction industry is recognised as the highest risk industry and associated with the larger numbers of injuries and fatalities. What makes this accident striking is not therefore that it happened, but what allegedly happened afterwards. This alleged treatment of an injured worker falls outside the applicability of the OHS Authority Act.

ConOHSA has been reaching out to migrant workers for several years and recently also prepared the attached user-friendly guidance document outlining the main issues involving OHS.  The guidance document addresses issues such as the duties of employers with regards to health and safety, the obligations that workers must fulfil and the legal rights they are entitled to including information about any OHS hazards at the workplace, participation in keeping the workplace safe and healthy, refusing unsafe work and above all, being able to work in a safe and healthy workplace without fear of violence or harassment.

This document has been translated into another 8 languages (Arabic, Bangla, French, German, Italian, Shqip, Somali and Tigrinya) and was circulated widely amongst migrant and human rights organisations in Malta. As with other guidance documents, it is also available for download free of charge through OHSA’s Facebook page (@ohsamalta) or through scanning a QR-code (please see attached visual). It has proved to be very popular and has been accessed hundreds of times.

OHSA can be contacted on 21247677, by email ohsa@gov.mt or through its FB page @ohsamalta

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