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A Safe Business Climate
Posted: Sunday, June 26, 2005

By Linda Edwards

Something went very wrong, and caused a massive explosion in the waters off our northwest peninsula. People are dead. The environment is polluted. It could have been worse.

Some critical questions: Was the welding area cleared of all flammable materials including gases? Were all safety mechanisms in place and a safety check performed? Who did this safety check? Was a senior fire officer consulted? Should they have been, if the welding was being done in our territorial waters? What shortcuts, if any, contributed to this tragedy? Were these trained welders or short-cutters recruited from some unemployment job pool?

(Ships register in Panama to get away from strict standards in the USA, Canada, Britain and Germany. It also limits their liability, I believe, to say nothing of the perception that other lives are worth less. For that reason, their staff is mostly poor East Asians.)

This is a wonderful opportunity for all three major papers, to whom this is sent, for the Environmental Protection people, for Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, the Labour Movement, and the Occupational Safety and Health people to jointly dig into this tragedy, which could have been worse if the vessel was tied up alongside.

Additional questions: Do we have dry-docking facilities for large tankers with problems? Where would they unload a cargo of fuel if they needed to clean wash the tanks before beginning welding?

We have had at least two oil based land explosions recently, two explosions in dumps (my piece Blasted Erin is attached as a reminder), at least two workers in major industrial accidents- one at Point Lisas and one at the LNG plant, or a related job, and these are some of the biggies that made the papers.

The time to ask questions is now. Are proper safety measures being followed in industry to safeguard the lives of workers, the safety of ports, and the protection of the environment?
Protecting the environment also means protecting the climate of safety in which the country can function.

In the past, there was a careless attitude to human life. There was no official compensation paid to injured workers, or to their families in case of death on the job. Picking up job-related medical costs seemed something left to kindly management. Kindly management may be an oxymoron. There were no emergency vehicles on standby in case of an accident. There were no emergency evacuation drills in case of an accident. Are these in place now? Should they be?

This is a good time to ask, to provide close scrutiny, to turn the beam of the light of knowledge and inquiry on those who may flee stricter environmental laws in other places, to set up shop with dangerous procedures, in places perceived as more lax, more anxious about "foreign investment", more concerned with "development"; more concerned with providing jobs.

Finally, are there minimum standards of plant safety that all businesses must follow?
Are there procedures in place for mandatory evacuation of a school in case of a fire, and mandatory reporting of same? There have been at least three fires in one school in Arima.

Does every school child, by class, know where to go and where to assemble in case the school has a fire? Does every teacher have strict protocols to follow in the event of a fire? (Assemble the class; walk to a designated location; call roll to account for every pupil present. Do this within 1 minute of the fire bell sounding. Do it in an orderly manner.) Does every school and place of work have a working fire alarm system? Does every principal and building supervisor know the procedures?

In my experience gleaned abroad, a fire marshal has the authority to walk in to any school during the school day, pull the master fire bell, and time the school in evacuating the building. If they take too long, it has to be done again within a few days. Principals are fined if their schools fail to evacuate properly the second time. This is true for private schools where the fees rival those of Harvard, and the lowliest state funded institution.

Do we have an evacuation plan for each major hospital?

Safety is a habit. In a country that produces enough natural gas and oil to set the whole place ablaze, including all the harbours, safety MUST become a daily mantra, for everyone!

Or do we, in traditional Trini style, wait 'til after the fact to say "If ah did know".

Now, we know. At least, now we must ask questions. Which ministry of the government oversees industrial safety? Please forward this to them.

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