OSHA’s building at 9 Alexander Street, St Clair, Port-of-Spain.

As the country opens up in phases allowing more businesses to resume operations, it will not be business as usual in the workplace with the continued threat of COVID-19.

Many employees will have to work from home. Others will work alternate shifts from work and home. There will also be more stringent sanitary practices and occupational safety and health standards in offices to minimise the threat of infection.

According to Dr Sayeed Rahaman, at the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 press conference on May 5, “All employers should now develop and implement infection disease strategies geared towards COVID-19 by establishing committees within their companies which will undertake risk assessment and develop control strategies.”

One of the authorities responsible for ensuring health standards in offices is the Occupational Safety and Health Agency and Authority (OSHA).

Responsible for enforcing the 2004 OSH Act, OSHA inspectors conduct inspections, complaints and accident investigations. They also recommend prosecution for breaches of the act and provide advice to stakeholders.

While public health inspectors will investigate whether businesses are adhering to COVID-19 public health guidelines, OSHA inspectors will be responsible for ensuring they carry out risk assessments tailored to the virus, establish health surveillance programmes and provide personal protective equipment to workers.

However, inspectors aren’t satisfied with the OSH agency’s workplace policy.

Guardian Media was informed that the agency isn’t following some of its guidelines and has not been doing so even before the onset of the global pandemic.

Employees believe the agency may be operating in contravention of the OSHA Act and this is of increasing concern to them with the threat of COVID-19.

The OSHA inspectors, out of a total group of around 40 people, said past and present management teams have failed to address their concerns, in turn, risking their health and safety. Guardian Media was provided with documents demonstrating employees’ long-standing concerns and an alleged inadequate response by management. Whenever they bring up their concerns to management in meetings, they claimed they are told to “take it or leave it.”

In April, OSHA published returning to work COVID-19 guidelines, called “The New Normal.”

Anticipating an increase in workplace complaints and refusal-to-work investigations, when fieldwork investigations resume, inspectors said the agency may struggle to meet its targets if these issues aren’t rectified.

“We have been asking for these things for too long. We felt as though we had no other choice but to speak up,” said one of the inspectors.

The inspectors believe they “should not be prosecuting entities when we ourselves are not in compliance.”

The first section of the act the agency is allegedly in contravention of is section 13A of the OSHA Act Chapter 88:08.

*Section 13A states that every employer shall make a suitable and sufficient annual assessment of the risks to the safety and health of his employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work and the risks to the safety and health of persons not in his employment arising out of or in connection with the environmental impact of his undertaking.

*Part three of that section says that employers who employ 25 or more employers shall keep a record under section 75 of the findings of the assessment, and any group of his employees identified by the assessment as being exposed to occupational safety and health risk.

But according to several OSHA inspectors and the employees’ representative union–the Banking, Insurance and General Workers Union (BIGWU)–OSHA is not conducting sufficient occupational risk assessments and there are no assessment records.

As a result of the current process, they said, inspectors conducting inspections, complaint and accident investigations across T&T are exposed to hazards with little or no risk management.

With COVID-19, a virus that has killed more than 350,000 people worldwide, added to the list of pathogens they can contract on the job, inspectors are no longer prepared to take that chance.

Inspectors are demanding that comprehensive risk assessments are conducted as soon as possible, and repeated frequently.

The last risk assessment was conducted a few years ago. It was not carried out, as proper procedure mandates, by independent inspectors.

What is a risk assessment?

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, a risk assessment is used to identify potentially harmful hazards and risk factors; to analyze and evaluate the risk associated with that hazard, and to ascertain the most suitable ways to eliminate the hazard, or control the risk when the hazard cannot be eliminated.

With the threat of COVID-19, which cannot be eliminated at this time, all businesses, as already advised by OSHA, will have to undertake risk assessments to safeguard the health of employees.

In the first chapter of its returning to work guidelines, OSHA calls for a risk assessment to be carried out, to minimise exposure to COVID-19 at work.

The guideline clearly states, “Precautions should always be determined by a risk assessment and appropriate control measures need to be put in place for returning workers to ensure that workplaces limit the opportunity for further viral spread.

“Employers are duty-bound to review and revise their risk assessments when there is a change to the work process and to consider all risks.”

OSHA in response to employees’ concern about an alleged lack of risk assessments said the chief inspector has done a comprehensive assessment to address the risks and hazards to inspectors in light of COVID-19.

However, Guardian Media was informed that is not the case.

“Given the current situation with COVID-19, they need to make sure we are safe. Risk assessment on a whole is an issue. If we don’t know the threats, then we cannot prepare for them,” said an inspector.

“As it is right now, no, we don’t feel safe. It doesn’t feel adequate. Within the building, there’s a risk-assessment document and it seems inadequate,” another inspector added.

The document is two pages long.

Listed under possible hazard identifications from staff and visitors to office are the coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and death.

The proposed risk controls are regular sanitisation of the building, social distancing and Ministry of Health guidelines.

A lengthy list of additional controls includes rostering work on specific days, restricting visitor access, limiting the receipt of hard copy documents, ensuring the building is thoroughly cleaned and sanitised, increasing sanitisation regime on a day-to-day basis, conducting virtual meetings where possible, practising social distancing, following Ministry of Health guidelines and OSHA’s operational guidelines, checking employee temperature on entry, emergency procedures for suspected or confirmed case at the office.

For field operations, proposed risk controls are OSHA’s operational guidelines, practising social distancing, as well as Ministry of Health guidelines.

Additional controls are the suspension of inspections, suspension of lectures, suspension of site visits for P2 accidents, complaints and 59(1)’s, OSHA’s operational guidelines and issuance of specific PPE.

Inspectors said, however, that while the list may appear comprehensive, it isn’t.

“The document is very ambiguous and lacks detail and substance. It lacks critical information such as hand washing, sanitising procedures and the mental health impact on employees,” said an inspector.

The majority of the proposed controls are not in effect, inspectors said.

With no increased cleaning and sanitisation taking place, there are concerns about OSHA’s offices on Duke Street, Port-of-Spain and St James Street, San Fernando.

They said the offices are not being cleaned frequently and effectively enough, while most employees have to purchase their hand sanitizer.

The second section of the OSH Act Chapter 88:08 that OSHA is alleged to be in contravention of is Section 25K.

*It states employers must establish a health surveillance programme.

“Every employer shall ensure that his employees are provided with such health surveillance as is appropriate having regard to the risks to their safety and health which are identified by the annual risk assessment and that every employer shall keep a record of the health surveillance referred to in subsection (1) in accordance with section 75,” the act states.

In documents, Guardian Media obtained, employees, via the union, wrote to OSHA’s Executive Director Carolyn Sancho and OSHA’s President Victor Coombs saying they have never been part of a health surveillance programme at the agency.

“Over years of performing their duties, the health effects being experienced by inspectors from occupational exposures remain undetected. With the lack of even pre-employment medical assessments being conducted, baseline medical data for inspectors is also non-existent,” the document states.

In response, the agency’s executive stated in a document that the health surveillance system continues to be a priority item.

However, the document added, “…Several strides have been made but there have been financial and logistical constraints which the agency hopes to have addressed.”

It’s unclear whether those constraints have been addressed.

In the first chapter of its returning to work COVID-19 guidelines, OSHA stated, “The likelihood of exposure should also be considered. Factors to consider are…Do employees have medical conditions that increase their vulnerability.”

The purpose of health surveillance

According to University of the West Indies’ Occupational Health, Safety and the Environment Unit’s Occupational Health Surveillance Policy, the purpose of health surveillance is to monitor, prevent or diagnose any health effects linked with exposure to chemical, biological, physical agents and work activities, whilst ensuring that accurate health records are maintained for employees who may be at risk.

Given that OSHA inspectors may be exposed to these agents while on duty, a surveillance system is essential to ensure their health is not compromised.

“We investigate complaints like asbestos, mould, rat infestations, excessive heat, excessive dust and even offshore work conditions,” said one of the inspectors.

Classified as a carcinogen by the US Department of Health and Human Services, asbestos causes a rare cancer of the larynx, lung and ovaries called mesothelioma. Mould and excessive dust can cause serious respiratory illnesses.

The third section of the act that OSHA is allegedly contravening is Section 6(2)(C).

*It states that without prejudice to the generality of an employer’s duty under subsection (1), the matters to which that duty extends include the provision of adequate and suitable protective clothing or devices of an approved standard to employees who in the course of employment are likely to be exposed to the risk of head, eye, ear, hand or foot injury, injury from air contaminant.

While inspectors said personal protective equipment (PPE) is being provided, they accuse the agency of failing to carry out medical evaluations and fit-testing before permitting the use of respiratory protection.

They claim the masks are not of a suitable standard tailored to individual usage. While tight-fitting respirators offer protection from pathogens, it can have negative consequences for the user’s health.

These potential consequences are of concern to the inspectors who believe medical evaluations to determine pre-existing respiratory issues are essential.

While not stated verbatim in T&T’s OSHA Act, as guided by the United States’ OSHA laws, a medical examination before the fit-testing for respirators is required.

Respiratory mask manufacturers 3M in its guidelines state, “Wearing a respirator can put an extra burden on the body. People with underlying medical conditions may put themselves at risk if they work while wearing one. So, OSHA requires medical evaluation before an employee can be fit-tested–let alone wear a respirator.”

While this calls for a medical evaluation before fit-testing, local inspectors said that they are not even being fit-tested before usage.

In response to the concerns by inspectors, OSHA’s Human Resource Manager Brian Scotland said, “Section 6(2)(C) makes no mention of medical evaluation. However, adequate PPE in the form of coveralls, suitable maks, gloves, boots and respirators will be provided and as per the norm, instruction will be provided along with the requisite PPE.”

Inspectors confirmed they have received PPE, but many maintain medical evaluations must be done.

Guardian Media sent questions to OSHA’s Executive Director Carolyn Sancho, and Minister of Labour and Small Enterprise Development Jennifer Baptiste-Primus. Baptiste-Primus advised Guardian Media to seek clarification from the agency’s executive director.

Sancho did not respond directly, but the agency’s Communication Department responded with a media release on March 27.

OSH agency: We’re committed to upholding the provisions of the act

1) Inspectors say that they don’t feel safe on the job and that there aren’t adequate occupational risk assessments, are their risk assessments being carried out?

Risk assessments are conducted periodically and in response to new and emerging hazards. So, for example, the agency conducted a risk assessment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are also currently engaging in a general risk assessment exercise.

2) Are there specific risk assessments being carried out in relation to COVID-19?

The agency conducted a risk assessment in response to the threat of COVID-19. The findings were used to develop operational guidelines for the agency which have been implemented. On 18 May 2020, the risk assessment was also sent to the union for feedback and we are still awaiting a response. The operational guidelines were already sent to Guardian Media in response to an article that ran in the Guardian Newspaper in April of this year.

3) Is there a health surveillance programme in place? If not, how come?

Health surveillance is a secondary defence measure after the implementation of direct hazard control such as engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment. Therefore, health surveillance may be needed when risks cannot be avoided. If no specific risk requiring health surveillance has been identified then this measure is not introduced.

4) Is OSHA adhering to all the OSH laws?

The OSH agency is committed to upholding the provisions of the OSH Act.

5) Are employees being provided with hand sanitizer, masks?

Yes. The agency provided all employees with hand sanitizer. All employees were also encouraged to follow the guidance of the Ministry of Health on the wearing of masks. Where there is a need for external engagement the agency has in stock sufficient PPE including masks for the staff. This was communicated to the staff.

6) Inspectors are asking for medical tests to be carried out before mask usage, do you see this is as necessary?

No medical tests are needed before one wears a mask. There is, however, a ‘Fit Test’ for full face and half face respirators, but this test is not a medical test.