Construction site safety system ‘near collapse’

OCC says organisational changes not enough

A Sunday accident that critically injured a man who was on the raised work platform of a construction vehicle when it tipped over put an emphatic point on recent recommendations made to improve worksite health and safety in the Cayman Islands.  

A report that was completed earlier this year by the Complaints Commissioner’s Office, but which has been withheld from public release because it had not been tabled in the Legislative Assembly, was independently made public by Commissioner Nicola Williams this week. Ms Williams opined in her lengthy report that the health and safety regulatory environment in Cayman’s construction industry is “ripe for abuse by unscrupulous employers and contractors”.  

“A Caymanian worker, if injured in a family business, is extremely unlikely to complain no matter how serious the injury,” the complaint commissioner’s office report stated. “Non-Caymanians injured as a result of their employers’ failure to comply with their health and safety obligations have, in some instances, had their work permits revoked, been summarily dismissed and forced to return to their country of origin.”  

The OCC review noted – as has often been said in the past – that worksite inspectors in the former Department of Employment Relations [now handled by the reformed Department of Labour and Pensions] were overworked and understaffed. Ms Williams said she did not see where that would change under the new regime.  

“If…no additional monies are allocated, such changes that are proposed will be largely cosmetic, of minimal effect, and will fail to address the deep-seated issues that have prevented effective and proper regulation in this area to date,” Ms Williams wrote.  

There were also instances uncovered what Ms Williams said were clear conflicts of interest with labour inspectors look into construction sites.  

“Any labour inspector owning or running a construction company would be guilty in [the view of government consultant Samuel Goolsarran, who issued a report on the Cayman Islands labour regulation system in 2007] of a serious professional breach,” the OCC report noted. “There is clear evidence with at least one former employee that this has been flouted in such a way that created a clear conflict of interest.” Ms Williams said that opinion was shared by one of the victims of a construction accident that was interview for the OCC report.  

“Inspectors should not be allowed to have businesses that will create a conflict of interest,” a previous accident victim noted in the report. “DER inspectors will only target some companies and not others because they themselves have their own construction companies…”  

Although that particular issue may have been resolved prior to the report’s release, the OCC report indicated that “there may well be existing department staff that are thus engaged in the construction industry outside their core work for the department”.  

To dismiss those individuals from government or ask them to drop all interests in the businesses they own would be “draconian”, according to Ms Williams. Instead, the commissioner recommended all labour department employees who do have such interests to sign the Register of Interests with a continuing obligation to keep it updated. Current regulatory measures that do require such declarations already, “have proven ineffective as currently operated”. Ms Williams noted in her report that incidents like platform collapses and scaffolding incidents were not the fault of the former Department of Employment Relations or the current Department of Labour and Pensions. In fact, in one scaffolding collapse from 4 June, 2010, – department officials stated they had warned managers at the Anderson Square worksite about shoddy scaffolding two days before it fell.  

“I want to make it clear at the outset that, at present, the labour inspectors responsible for health and safety are doing good work within the financial and other resource constraints under which they operate,” Ms Williams said. 

However, she noted that more work needed to be done before a regulatory infrastructure “which, if not improved, could collapse at any moment”.  

“[This issue] affects not only workers employed in this industry, but also members of the general public who could be injured, or worse, from falling masonry, unsecured scaffolding and other health and safety breaches.”  

 

Sunday’s accident 

In the platform accident that occurred Sunday, the raised platform struck an electricity pole before falling across the road and striking a building across the street.  

The crane was placed next to the First Caribbean bank building where a worker inside the bucket of the platform was taping clear plastic sheeting to the windows. The man was still inside the bucket when the platform tipped over and crashed.  

The worker was still in the critical care unit at press time Tuesday. Ms Williams said, if this had occurred during a typical work day, it’s entirely possibly passers-by might have been injured as well.  

According to recommendations contained in the OCC report: “A driver should only be allowed to operate a crane or a forklift truck if they are certified to do so. At present, persons driving such equipment need only a ‘group 4’ licence.”  

 

Inspections 

The OCC also recommended that health and safety inspectors should be assigned their own unit and employees within the new Department of Labour and Pensions.  

Ms Williams said her review found that overall in the past, labour inspectors spent very little time doing snap inspections of worksites. She also recommended that the director of the new department be given absolute authority to shut down worksites if numerous health and safety violations are spotted. Under the current law, only the minister responsible for labour and employment has the power to close an entire worksite. Fines for violations should also be increased, the OCC recommended.  

Labour inspectors saw the number of construction companies registered in the Cayman Islands go from around 100 before Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004 to more than 700 companies a year later.  

However, according to a former staffer at the Department of Employment Relations, it was not until after Hurricane Ivan that health and safety issues on construction worksites became an issue for the department.  

“Before I came to the department, there was no health and safety component,” said former DER Director Walling Whittaker.  

Training of worksite inspectors also needed work, the OCC found. “As of December 2011, there was far less awareness amongst existing DER staff of the importance and effect of international laws and conventions and their attendant obligations,” the report noted.  

 

Prosecutions 

There were specific instances of cases where worksite safety violations had occurred, but were never prosecuted, according to Ms Williams’ report.  

“In the words of a former member of staff: ‘The legal department actually allowed three or four cases to pass through – two fatalities and loss of limb or eye…but the cases never came to fruition. What legal wanted was a platter case where they did not actually have to do any work. 

“Most of the time, we became disheartened. {We] called the victims up and told them it would be better if they took their case somewhere else because of the length of time it would take.”  

The legal department representatives interviewed for the report had a different view.  

“It was felt that the quality of the files submitted for legal opinion was in many cases poor or incomplete, and the resulting requests by legal for further information and the resubmission of files added unnecessary delay to potential prosecutions that were already time-sensitive,” the OCC report noted.  

“Even before files were submitted, according to Trevor Ward, former senior Crown counsel….far too much time is spent in negotiations, which further delay the process.”  

1 COMMENT

  1. .. now handled by the reformed Department of Labour and Pensions were overworked and understaffed……
    How many people exactly work in this department? What is their qualification? How many sites each person inspects per day? Compare it to those doing the same job in US and UK. And after that, conclusion could be made if they are overworked and understaffed. Inefficiency is a normal way of performing a simple task in CI. What would take 2 min in US, takes at least 15 in Cayman.

  2. Once again the people are caught between two Government offices blaming the other for inaction. Clearly the reformed offices was a move not for the betterment of the Islands but to be pointed at as progress in Government. What a sham, and I wonder what other shams one could find in Government activities. Does no one take pride in what a job they do?

  3. As a professional Health Safety Consultant it is blindingly obvious the lack of workplace Health Safety in the Cayman Islands. There has been fatalities in our industry, tourism,agriculture and construction sectors over the years that has simply been accepted as bad luck.It has nothing to do with luck but a simple case of employee/employer ignorance.
    We need to address this disparity and come in line with the UK/US and actually create and implement a Health safety culture.
    Now is the time to act and stop the injuries and deaths that continue.
    We need dediacated legislation and trained inspectors.
    Contact me and lets begin making a difference.

  4. I’m visiting relatives in Cayman and recently took a trip from the Yacht Club out to Stingray City. Shortly after leaving the dock I took a photo of several construction workers walking on the roof of a domestic house being constructed. There appeared to be no safety equipment in use at all. Given that they must have been a minimum of 25ft up any fall would have led to severe injuries or worse. I’ve never seen anything similar in the UK and was astounded that the authorities let this happen. Taff911 is spot on with his comments.

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