Cayman’s government watchdog has begun a review of whether health and safety regulations at local work sites can be effectively policed.
While she admits that current Department of Employment Relations occupational health and safety inspectors are doing the best they can, Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams said she believes short-staffing and financial limitations are making inspectors’ jobs practically impossible.
“They are not even a dedicated unit, they do everything,” Ms Williams said of the five current labour inspectors, who police everything from employment disputes to work site injuries. “They spend a fraction of their day doing health and safety inspections.”
The issue of construction site safety was a hot button issue in the year or two following 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, when the rebuilding of Cayman led to a plethora of new construction work in the Islands. Several major work place injuries and two deaths were reported during the time.
In April 2005, then-Department of Employment Relations head Walling Whittaker said the government would increase work site inspections due to a 460 per cent increase in construction workers on the Islands at the time.
“Most of these workers are likely untrained and many of the newly established construction companies may be working with unsafe practices,” Mr. Whittaker said in April 2005. “This situation has created a high risk for accidents to occur and regrettably we have already seen two deaths and several serious injuries in the construction industry.”
Ms Williams admits public attention to the government’s work in that area has fallen off of late.
“Just because it no longer is on the radar doesn’t mean it’s not a problem,” Ms Williams said.
Moreover, the commissioner said the issue is about to become very relevant in Cayman’s near future. She said a number of major construction projects are being planned by the ruling government which will require a large number of workers – many of whom are likely to be brought in from outside the Cayman Islands.
“[We must ensure] the ability to properly inspect proposed major building projects involving nationals from countries whose health and safety regulations may be less rigorous than those in the Cayman Islands,” she said.
Commissioner Williams did not list specific projects, but the government has proposed a number of major works including the building of Dr. Devi Shetty’s hospital in East End, the construction of two new cruise ship berthing facilities in George Town and West Bay, and the proposed improvement to the Spotts Jetty.
“I have decided that an independent investigation is in the public interest so that an understanding of the government’s practices can be made clear – including the changes announced by [Employment] Minister Rolston Anglin in June 2010,” she said.
Mr. Anglin announced in June 2010 that the Department of Employment relations would be split and its responsibilities placed under two separate entities.
The first, the Department of Labour and Pensions, is planned to deal with all labour-related disputes, while the second, the Human Capital Development Agency, will focus on job placement and training initiatives.
The reorganisation is the work of several months, which began partly out of concern for lack of enforcement of the National Pensions Law, and partly due to difficulties within the employment relations department.
“Quite frankly in May 2009 the (employment relations) department was on the verge of a collapse,” Mr. Anglin said. “There was nothing but finger-pointing as staff struggled just to make it through the day without incident.”
Mr. Anglin said that the Department of Labour and Pensions would serve as a “clearing house” of all labour and pension related complaints, presumably to include labour-related health and safety issues at construction sites.
The changes to the government departments have not yet taken effect.