New OHSA chairman calls for ‘more organisation’ on construction sites

Last Updated on Thursday, 5 August, 2021 at 9:10 am by Andre Camilleri

More needs to be done in order to ensure the safety of construction workplaces in terms of “seriousness, proactiveness and site organisation” so as to reduce workplace deaths and injuries, the new chairman of the Occupational Health and Safety Authority (OHSA), Perit David Xuereb, told the Malta Business Weekly.

Xuereb was appointed as OHSA chairman a few days ago and his official tenure started yesterday, 4 August. An architect by profession, Xuereb has vast experience under his belt when it comes to regulatory authorities such as the OHSA. He has also served as the president of The Malta Chamber of Commerce.

The OHSA is tasked with the regulation of safety of employees at workplaces and for this to be maintained in order to mitigate any potential injuries or deaths from occurring, among other issues.  The Malta Business Weekly  met with the newly-appointed chairman to see what his role will entail and what his main concerns are.

“I did interact quite significantly in the past in the area of health and safety within the building industry. And I, therefore, am not a newcomer to this regulator,” he said.

The chairman noted that he has been working very hard in his professional life to improve the standards of the industry and saw health and safety “as an opportunity to improve production, efficiency and quality of life, and therefore improve productivity, happiness, and all the management issues that normally go with any project”.

“I am very wary of the fact that there is risk in anything that we do. And of course, that risk also lies with how people feel and whether they are safe enough. It is always a constant worry, especially if you’re managing construction sites. Risk will always be there and that’s why laws are there; to ensure that risk is minimised and stand at its absolute minimum,” Xuereb said.

On his aspirations, the chairman said that he wants to first settle into the role, appreciate the work carried out so far and see what the next steps are for the OHSA to improve. “First to keep on reducing risk at the place of work, of course. So it’s not just the deaths, but also the near-misses, the injuries; all those things that can affect the life of any individual in our society, whether Maltese or not, as he or she forms part of our society.”

Communication is another factor that Xuereb wants to improve in order to ensure that there is “stronger interaction with the general public, not only with the employers or the employees, but also the people out there to appreciate the overarching value of health and safety”, he said.

He also remarked that Covid-19 might take a while longer until it dissipates, so the workplace might still have to take some measures posed by the “absolute authorities” which have guided workplaces “through these many sinusoidal waves”.

Recently, a lot of construction accidents or pictures of employees in the sector performing dangerous manoeuvres have been circling on social media and reported by news outlets. Asked about this, the chairman said that “although the industry is an important part of our economy… in one way or another, it remains an industry in which investment, improvement or regulation has remained very poor”.

He noted that if developers, contractors, architects, engineers and regulators do not collectively “up their ante and live up to professional expectations seriously… it is perhaps the reason why the building industry looks so bad”.

“I say look so bad, because you are right, in most instances, when I walk next to a construction site, I would be shocked by the visually apparent lack of seriousness, proactiveness and organisation that a construction site would have,” the chairman remarked.

“I think we have failed, we are still failing and it still looks really bad, and that is something we need to improve,” Xuereb said.

He observed that a new authority has been created to address this, which is the Building and Construction Authority (BCA). “It has been absent forever and it’s only about two months old now. But the remit of this authority is to address this void, which has remained unattended for the past years, as far as we can remember,” he said.

If authorities such as the BCA, the Planning Authority, the Environmental Authority, and so forth work hand in hand, whereby the enforcement of regulations is addressed, “naturally, health and safety and everything else that the OHSA focuses on will also be naturally improved,” he said.

“To build a project in Malta, you need to deal with tens of offices, authorities or regulations, which of course makes it very complicated for any operator, but also likewise very difficult for society to regulate and manage,” he observed.

However, the new OHSA chairman pointed out that when workplace injuries and death numbers are compared to other EU countries, he is “pleasantly surprised” to see that Malta is not faring off that bad.

“So this realistically implies that the efforts of the OHSA and the Health and Safety community of professionals over the years have been relatively good. The impression we get when we see construction projects, however, makes us think the direct opposite,” he said.

This does not mean that the OHSA will not be working to improve on its positive results, but rather the contrary. “We want our numbers to be the absolute best everywhere and consistently. Anybody who’s working on a construction site, or in a factory, or in storage and warehousing, needs to be educated, sensitive and careful because those are probably the riskiest workplaces.”

“Transport and storage is actually as high a risk as construction. But of course, in construction, you can see it, you can feel it, you can form impressions about it. Ultimately, our interest is for us to have the lowest statistics of injuries or deaths, irrespective of whether you see it or not,” he noted.

Asked about whether he feels that workers should know more about their rights and whether some form of educational programmes should take place to make them more aware, Xuereb answered “absolutely”.

“This is fundamental on a number of accounts, not only because we just want people to know their rights, but when you understand the risks of health and safety at the workplace – of the potential risk of not going home in the evening – then people become more sensitive and more careful, and therefore, the risk of people becoming injured is reduced,” he said.

Xuereb noted that one initiative that started a few years ago was the introduction of a skills-card for construction workers by the BICC. “This would indicate whether construction workers have a basic understanding of health and safety, their rights or obligations, what they should be doing, what health and safety truly means and what the consequences are,” Xuereb remarked.

“The other part is ensuring that the person wishing to work with a skill in any particular trade actually has that skill. So, one will have to prove that if he/she is skilled to plaster, then they should be aware of the risks of possibly getting hurt by plastering operations. Risk appreciation will lead to risk mitigation and this will ultimately lead to true skills carried out in a safe working environment. The continued roll out of skills-cards will enable improved and robust development of any sustainable business,” he said.  

Eventually, contractors in the building industry will equally be classified and licensed, he noted “and this will greatly assist to account what they, their management structures and their human resources are truly able and competent to do”.

That classification of contractors will also include “the ability to describe the complete nature of the skills that the contractor employs, but also the fact that all the workers would have a skill-card which will include health and safety training, and therefore the ability to understand risk and, of course, appreciate their rights”.

Xuereb remarked that this is still a “work in progress” and that as a country “we’re very late in introducing such protocols that lead to employee skill certification and contractor classification and licencing. I am optimistic that the new Building and Construction Authority will be prioritising this ambition.”

“However, I’m not going to look at the past, as there now seems to be a true and genuine willingness to see tangible and professional change. I am very hopeful that that willingness – with milestones, timelines and objectives like we would have in normal businesses – will be delivered, because we cannot risk postponing this anymore,” he noted.

Given that government’s plan for the country, for the next few years, focuses on specific topics, namely digitisation and green economy, Xuereb was asked how this would infiltrate within the OHSA’s sphere.

“Of course, I cannot be happier with you asking me about this since one of the focus areas of my current studies at the University of Cambridge, is the decarbonisation of the economy, which means that business and the workplace will transition to reduce its carbon footprint in a global effort to mitigate the effects of climate change. This transition towards a decarbonised industry will include much collaboration and innovation and this will be assisted by digitalisation,” he said.

The chairman noted that during the time he spent as president of the Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber launched the economic vision for all of the country. Bearing this in mind, he noted that digitalisation was clearly identified as an absolute objective and this will be extremely transformative for all industries, even when it comes to safety at workplaces. Continuous training, upskilling and reskilling will be paramount during this transition.

“Clearly, as all our industries develop – including the building industry – within the next couple of years, we’ll be seeing a huge transformation in the way technology and data will be deployed, the way instrumentation will be used and also in the skills that are required to be able to take us into this new era,” he said. “Frankly, the faster we’re able to get there, the better it is going to be in terms of improving performance, efficiency, and, bluntly, to remain competitive in the world. So I’m looking at this with business acumen and also from a health and safety point of view.”

Xuereb remarked that this transition will be crucial to the workplace environment, as “nothing beats objective measurement” which is introduced by such a digital shift.

“If I really wanted to know whether the quality of air or the vibration of a machine or the noise in a factory or the dust in a construction site are above safety thresholds, nothing beats actually measuring them on an ongoing basis in an objective manner. I see this as a great opportunity,” he observed.

On another note, he said that such technologies, such as AI, drones, 3D printing and so forth, which will “probably be used on a blockchain platform”, will also “take away a lot of emotional conversations and subjective interpretation of risk” when it comes to health and safety of employees.

This will lead the country to the opportunity to grow its economy in a safe way, by using technology effectively and decarbonise our economy in respect of our commitment with the rest of the world, he noted.

“My wish is for us to accelerate this transition and to be ahead of the transformation curve and not trail behind. That transition in the world will happen – no doubt in my mind. I just want to see our country drive the change ahead of the curve. So, the more we communicate and collaborate and become aligned to a common purpose, the more we’re able to inspire young, career-seeking or career-changing individuals who seek a safer and more prosperous future for themselves in our country,” he said.

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