Ensuring safer workplaces
Lost in the welter of daily controversial news has been the recent welcome signing by President Duterte of another good law: Republic Act No. 11058 or the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Law, a long overdue measure that requires businesses to provide a healthy, hazard-free workplace for their employees.
Numerous accidents over the years have highlighted unsafe conditions in work sites across the country. Among the most common complaints of workers are the failure of employers to provide basic necessities like electric fans or emergency lights, long hours without proper compensation, and exposure to hazards like chemicals and huge machines without protective gear. RA 11058 mandates that businesses recognize their workers’ rights to be informed of the nature of their work, to refuse to perform unsafe functions, to report accidents and file for compensation, and to be provided with protective equipment.
Unsafe workplaces can lead to tragedy. In the 2015 Kentex factory fire, 74 workers died after they were trapped inside a building with grilled windows. The fire was caused by sparks from a welder’s tool that ignited flammable chemicals stored nearby. Investigation revealed that the factory was an accident waiting to happen: The company did not conduct fire drills, it failed to install adequate fire extinguishers and alarm and sprinkler systems, and there were no fire escapes or even storage and proper labels for chemicals. Surprise inspections following the accident would unveil similar deplorable conditions in other factories.
Back then, labor groups already warned that more workers will suffer unless the government tightened health and safety regulations.
In December 2017, two days before Christmas, another fire, this time at New City Commercial Center in Davao City, killed 38 people, most of them working at a call center located in the mall. Same safety deficiencies: The sprinklers did not work, the fire alarm was not interconnected, and emergency exits did not comply with regulations such as being heat- and smoke-proof, thus becoming impassable in the fire. Most of the casualties perished near the stairwell as they tried to get out of the inferno, not knowing it would lead to their death instead.
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), manufacturing is the most hazardous industry, accounting for 48 percent of reported occupational injuries in 2015, followed by wholesale and retail trade (11 percent), and agriculture, forestry and fishing (10 percent). The top three injuries involved superficial/open wounds (56.2 percent), dislocations/sprains and strains (12.6 percent), and fractures (8.8 percent). The PSA said wrist and hand injuries were high in the manufacturing industry, accounting for 48.1 percent, with machines and equipment as the top cause.
Recently, among the grievances aired by the striking workers of manufacturing firm NutriAsia Inc. were, other than meager pay, unsafe work conditions that they said often resulted in burns, scalds, falls and machine-related injuries. Workers would be assigned to tasks they were not familiar with or were without accompanying protective gear, resulting in accidents. Once injured, workers were reportedly fired without compensation.
RA 11058 curtails such unfair practices by explicitly requiring that employers provide safety orientation to their workers, make a full disclosure of hazards involved in their jobs, put in place preventive measures to minimize the risks, and institute steps during emergencies. The law also stipulates that employers should train and educate workers on chemical safety, as well as provide protective gear free of charge. Those who violate and fail to comply will be fined a maximum of P100,000 a day until the violation has been corrected.
How many companies out there are still exposing their workers to risks on a daily basis? RA 11058 seeks to address an urgent, widespread problem that has long afflicted many Filipino workers. But, as always, the crux is whether the implementing agencies will do their job to make sure that businesses comply, so that another good law does not end, yet again, more honored in the breach than in the observance.
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