“Worker safety is always first”
With the growing number of development projects in the country, workers’ safety has become a major concern. PATRICK SENNYAH speaks to newly appointed Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) director-general Datuk Ir Dr Johari Basri on the situation in Malaysia
Q: How would you describe the overall health and safety situation of our workers?
A: With the increase in economic activities like construction, manufacturing and plantation, there would be an upward trend in accident rates, especially at construction sites. This is a normal scenario and we have taken steps to ensure that the accident rate does not increase.
Prevention is our main focus. We do not want to wait for an accident to happen and then proceed with enforcement. We want to make sure that enforcement is strictly carried out and all necessary steps are taken by employers to prevent mishaps.
Q: What is the main cause of industrial accidents?
A: They mostly result from poor training. That is why, nowadays, we want to ensure that workers are given adequate training. If not, we will take the necessary action.
Sometimes, employers fail to practise safe working procedures. For example, there are insufficient safety guidelines for operators of cranes or heavy machinery. This is where we ensure that all workers clearly understand these procedures and know how to operate the machines safely.
Also, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1994, employers are required to carry out a risk assessment to identify the type of risk associated with a particular type of work. For example, before construction work begins, the employer must assess the risks involved and ensure all guidelines under the Hazard Identification Risk Assessment and Risk Control are followed. It is better for the risks to be identified and eliminated before work starts.
Q: What is the most common industrial accident?
A: Workers falling off buildings under construction. That is why employers must ensure that their workers always follow safe work procedures and use the proper personal protective equipment. At any worksite, there must be an OSH (Occupational Safety and Health) management system.
By adopting an OSH system, employers will be able to better manage the risks at their worksites. They can do this by assessing, identifying and controlling the risk.
In fact, I am also the executive director of Asean-OSHNET (Asean Occupational Safety and Health Network), where the 10 Asean countries collaborate on training, research, consultancy, standards and safety.
This is basically an effort by Asean governments to enhance safety and health in their respective countries. This networking allows us to exchange information and share our experience.
Certain training procedures used in Malaysia have been offered to other Asean nations, such as our safety and health officers course, forklift safety training and individual hygiene monitoring.
Q: Does the development of new technologies bring new threats to workers’ safety?A: Definitely, which is why those in DOSH have to be in touch with the latest developments. Our officers undergo continuous training, especially in the petrochemical industry.
This industry is always pushing the limits of production by increasing the capacity of the system in terms of pressure and temperature. This put the system at high risk, which must be matched with proper safety measures.
In order to be able to carry out enforcement on this type of high- technology industry, we have to enhance our knowledge so that we are able to assess whether the system is adequate to prevent accidents like leaks of flammable material.
Q: How would you describe the competency level of our DOSH officers?A: In developed countries, officers must be one step ahead and be able to identify emerging risks. For a significant risk to be identified, we must carry out certain studies, assessments and clinical testing. We must be able to identify risks that are sometimes considered minor by others.
To do this, our learning process is never-ending. For example, in ergonomics (the study of workplace design and the physical and psychological impact it has on workers), even the prolonged use of a computer keyboard, poorly designed chairs or workstations could lead to health problems. There’s much development in this area and we must understand it to be able to carry out enforcement.
This problem of ensuring proper ergonomics is now surfacing in Malaysia and we must be prepared for it. The scope of our activities are very wide and our inspectors must be given continuous training and be on their toes at all times.
Q: What about the OSH practitioners?
A: These practitioners must upgrade themselves and stay in touch with the changing business climate. Before they are assigned to provide a certain kind of service, DOSH will make sure that they have the desired expertise.
We don’t want OSH practitioners to call themselves consultants and advise employers after attending a two-day course. Sometimes, when an employer has no knowledge of a certain issue, he would turn to these so-called consultants who themselves sometimes have little or no knowledge about the issue. In the end, the employer is shortchanged and workers are at risk.
It is our aim to develop a culture where OSH is given priority even before work starts. Achieving a zero accident rate is about co-ordinating efforts to increase aware-ness on the importance of work safety. We want to develop a preventive culture which will become the cornerstone of all worksites in future. There is no point talking about it after a life is lost.
Q: Coming back to the issue of ergonomics, how prevalent is this in Malaysia?
A: There is a division under the DOSH to monitor this. Let’s say a baggage handler lifts more than a hundred bags for more than eight hours a day. There is a possibility he may suffer from back problems. So, we do an assessment of his activities and interview the worker with the help of our doctors.
The doctor will make an assessment on whether the back problem is caused by his job or it is an inherent problem unrelated to his work. If work-related, the doctor will make a recommendation on the necessary course of action to be taken, which may include reducing the workload or the working hours.
Q: What is the progress of the forensic unit under DOSH?
A: The unit was set up this month and consists of experienced staff to carry out detailed investigations when accidents such as exposure to chemicals, failure of structures or toppling of cranes happen.
They will collect evidence, conduct analysis, lab tests and piece the evidence together to find out the cause of the accident. They will then compile a report and decide if there is a need to prosecute.
If necessary, they will also give evidence in court. We have staffed the unit with our best inspectors, including those from the states.
Q: What is your idea of a decent workplace?
A: A workplace that provides workers with adequate rewards and compensation in a healthy and safe environment. Workers’ rights must be protected and there should be no discrimination in terms of age, race or gender.
Workers must also be given protection, such as insurance, and must not be exploited. OSH is, of course, an important ingredient of a decent workplace.
Q: What about maintenance? Is this an important aspect as well?
A: Of course. A maintenance culture is very important. When something is new, it is fine but when it gets old, safety becomes an issue and we must have maintenance. For example, if a plane is not maintained, there is a high chance that it will crash. The same applies to all machinery. Sometimes, proper maintenance is the difference between life and death.