Playing with ammonia

Tuesday, 15 May 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • Occupational health and safety of employees


A Tale of Two Cultures

I entered the interview room, brimming with confidence. The interview panel hurled all sort of deliveries at me. It was not a game I could afford to play defensive. So, I attacked from the beginning. The interview was nearing the end. I thought that it was the time to make a lasting impression. I danced down the track and handed over my precious photographic dossier as a proof of high quality construction experience. The dossier was akin to a documentary movie on paper, covering each and every step of a major hydropower construction project. No narrative was needed to describe the depictions. 

I grossly underestimated the interviewer. It was too late for me to realise my mistake. He delivered “the other one” – the “doosra”. I missed it completely. “Where was the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the workers? Why don’t they wear safety shoes, gloves, height safety harnesses, hard hats, safety vests, etc.? Why do they wear rubber slippers and walk on reinforcement cages?”

The delivery was a combination of many. I was too far down the track and there was no hope for me to come back. I heard the death rattling sound of breaking the stumps. Anyway, I tried to reach back the crease by saying, “The workers were not interested in wearing PPE although we issued them all.” It was my desperate attempt to reason out the true local situation and get the third interviewer’s (umpire’s) mercy. Subconsciously, I knew that my bat was just on the line and as you know, the line belonged to the third umpire.

He replied me: “It may be true, but wasn’t it your responsibility, as the project engineer, not to proceed with work after seeing them not wearing the PPE?” I had been comprehensively stumped. I left the interview room disappointed. Fortunately, I had scored enough initially to win the battle but I felt ashamed of my poor judgement. My explanation was not worthy for a person who applied for a high calibre position in the Australian State Government Sector. It was the last time I presented my overrated photographic dossier.

By the way, my mind sprints back 26 years. I presented the same photographic dossier at an interview which was donned by a panel of four heavyweights of Sri Lankan engineering profession. It was my attempt to secure a position in a Government corporation. I competed against over 100 applicants. When I informed the panel that I preferred a specific organisation, they warned me that it was very unlikely for me to secure it as only one vacancy was available in the particular corporation. I refused to budge. 

The interview went well and the panel highly praised me on my record keeping practice after they meticulously studied my photographic album. At the end of the interview, they suggested me to make the album available for the annual engineering exhibition. I had known that the presentation of dossier at the right time would tip the decision in favour of me. I was selected for the position. 

However, my personal circumstances prevented me accepting the job, which I still regret. Nor could I make available the album for the exhibition, which I do not necessarily regret in hindsight. I would have done a disservice to young engineers, if I advocated poor safety management practices through my album. 

I have utmost professional respect for the local senior engineers. I do not blame the Sri Lankan interview panel which failed to detect the safety management lapses as it was the work culture that prevailed at that time in the construction industry. However, I am disappointed that the same culture is being promoted now at work sites and within organisations.

The industrial accident

Horana town is a special place for me. Not only is it my hometown but also the people, surrounds, and the three famous schools I attended gave me unique opportunities to walk on different paths in my life. The technical professionals, artists, writers, singers, musicians, actors and actresses who lived in Raigam Koralaya roamed Horana often. It was a sheer joy for me to listen, admire, follow and imitate them.

I visited my home town a few weeks ago and I witnessed an unusual sombre mood among the people. After seeing two funeral processions, I made a few enquiries. Then, I heard about the industrial accident and five deaths happened in Balapitiya hamlet.

Based on the media articles, I determined that it was a tragedy which could have been avoided with a bit of hazardous material management knowledge, common sense and through a few structural adjustments to the workplace if someone responsible had cared enough.

Duty as an engineer

As an engineer, I would not be able to forgive myself, if I do not write, at least, in general terms and give some advice to all employers on how to prevent such a loss of innocent lives. It is emphasised here that I have no intention either to investigate what really happened in Horana or to identify who were at fault. My focus here is to narrate how worker safety must be managed at all work places, in general terms.

There are so many workplace safety aspects to be dissected and this is not an academic forum for that exercise. Hence, my narrative below is only a snapshot of what should happen at work places, based on my overseas experience on risk assessment, risk management, safety audits and safety plan development. This article is for the toddlers who just started the safety management walk. 

Community expectations

Any employee who leaves home for work is expected to come back home safely to meet the loved ones at the end of the day’s work. Hence, the owner and/or the senior management of a workplace has the legal responsibility to make sure the workplace is safe for the workers and for all the visitors. Fulfilling of this responsibility is a stepped process. 

My previous article on risk management (Daily FT, 18 August 2017) offered strategic level guidance to senior management on the setting up of a risk management framework, complying with the relevant international standards. Risk management is relevant for all big and small organisations. This article covers the next step, which is the development of the operational documents.

Standard Operational Procedures (SOPs)

Every worker performs a set of duties. The employee may work as an independent worker or a team member. Whichever the circumstance is, there should be a document clearly describing how each activity should be performed. It should be noted here that the workers should have the basic knowledge, skills, training, physical and mental capacity to do the assigned activities. So, it is the responsibility of the senior management to appoint the correct person to perform the appropriate activity. 

The supervisor’s responsibility is to provide the relevant training for the employee and to assess the physical and mental condition of the employee before instructing a person to perform a particular task. This is why a stressed person and/or a person under the influence of prohibited drugs or alcohol must not be allowed to operate a machine, irrespective of his/her skill levels. Basically, each and every employee in an organisation should have own Standard Operating Procedures for their typical duties.

The machines, tools, equipment and furniture are to be carefully selected and purchased. In the public sector of developed countries, like Australia, before making the purchasing decision, plant risk assessment is done as a mandatory requirement. After the installation of machines and equipment, further risk assessments are to be done to ensure the safe operation of the machines. It is true that plant manufactures provide standard operating procedures for all the machines but these procedures are improved by incorporating characteristics of the workplace environment.

Safe Work Method Statements (SWMS)

This is an extension of the Standard Operating Procedure by incorporating safety management elements. This document basically describes how the activity is performed safely. It addresses safety of the employees, the visitors and the general public at the vicinity of the workplace. It includes how to protect the property as well although the main focus is on human safety. This procedure explains which personal protective equipment should be worn. It also specifies how to isolate the activity area to prevent anyone unauthorised entering the workspace.

Safety Management Plans (SMPs)

The Safety Management Plan covers overall safety management provisions within a workplace. The buildings should be structurally safe and fit for the purpose. The workplace should be equipped with a hygienic and comfortable work environment and public amenities. There should be first aid rooms and storage facilities that hold an adequate quantity of appropriate personal protective equipment. Also, if the workers are to perform work at heights, the workplace should be equipped with height safety arrangements such as ladder attachment points, roof anchor points or horizontal stay cables to hook safety harnesses. 

All pits need be secured with railings. The chemicals are to be stored in containers with bunds to contain spillage. Warning signage must be displayed on all chemical and hazardous material storages. Handling of such material must be done by authorised trained staff only. Toxic fume and gas extraction arrangements must be in place to control the health effects to the employees and visitors. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list but to give an indication of the scale of the challenge in front of the senior management who are responsible for the development and implementation of the Safety Management Plan. 

Safety audits

Workplaces are dynamic environments. Worker behaviour is volatile. Environmental conditions change without any warnings. Hence, one cannot assume that all processes and procedures would work all the time. Hence, periodic or random safety audits must be done to verify safety management systems still works as planned.

Auditors must observe how the actual activities are being carried out. Documentary evidences on training, equipment calibrations and periodic service must be checked and if any breaches in relation to following safety instructions are found, then non-compliance notices and corrective action directives must be issued. 

The culture of safety must be instilled among all employees. Employees should be encouraged to report on any unsafe activity they witness at the workplace to the senior management.

Safety committees

Every organisation should have a formal Workers’ Health and Safety Committee. It must comprise permanent representatives from all operational and management layers of the organisation. They should organise periodic and random safety audits and also coordinate with staff on corrective actions. 

Emergency management plans

This plan must outline the high-risk activities within the workplace and how to respond to an unforeseen accident. Staff should hold practice drills to be familiar with how to react to such situations. Panicked staff and onlookers who take own decisions would more often make the situations more tragic. 

The employers and the senior staff have the responsibility to develop and implement the tested emergency management plans. Further, the Emergency Evacuation Plan (EVAC Plan) must be displayed at strategic positions in the workplace, for advising how the occupants should vacate the workplace as quickly as possible by following the shortest path of exit.

Responsibility of Government and workers

I have absolutely no idea which Sri Lankan Government agencies are responsible for safety compliance at workplaces. Some says that it is the Labour Department’s responsibility while the others quote the Environmental Authority. That debate itself presents the level of unawareness among public. In New South Wales, Australia, the NSW Environmental Authority sets environmental compliance regulations and all companies should get licences for their relevant operations. If the company cannot demonstrate that the staff are technically qualified with relevant skills, the licences would not be issued. Like in Sri Lanka, VIPs cannot influence the Australian Government officials to issue licences. 

Then, the NSW SafeWork issues the licences for all other high-risk operations at work places. They have the authority to visit any workplace by appointment or unannounced to carry out safety checks or audits. Any safety non-compliances would be dealt with via fines and prosecutions. 

All major moving plant like lifts and escalators are to be annually licenced with the NSW SafeWork, declaring that those are being regular maintained. The hazardous material handlers need licences for each occasion of material handling. NSW SafeWork has developed numerous safety guidelines for employers. 

The third organisation is NSW Fair Work, which looks after employee rights. This organisation intervenes when employers treat employees unfairly. This includes cases where employers ask employees to carry out risky work or work for which they have not been trained.

Concluding remarks

Employers and senior management of an organisation can develop many processes, procedures, plans and guidelines. However, this effort would not deliver desirable results if the workers do not use and follow these directives. 

It is true that the employers and senior management would be punished by law if they failed to produce such documents, but the failure of workers to adhere to safety directions may cost them their lives. That is the bitter truth that everyone should remember.

(Eng. Janaka Seneviratne is a Chartered Professional Engineer, a Fellow and an International Professional Engineer of both the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka and Australia. He holds two Masters Degrees in Local Government Engineering and in Engineering Management and at present, works for the Australian NSW Local Government Sector. His mission is to share his 31 years of local and overseas experience to inspire Sri Lankan professionals. He is contactable via