This month marks the yet another occasion that the smoke emissions, from the sanitary landfill, easily penetrated into the Government Administration Building and posed a wide series of health hazards to civil servants and clients alike. The profound dangers of prolonged exposure to toxic smoke i.e. cancers, could leads to disability, permanent heart, throat and lung infections or damage, slower mental and brain development and even likely death.
Regretfully, it is common to hear civil servants bitterly complain about chronic sinus problems, uncontrollable coughing, nausea, sneezing, congestion, headaches, chest pains, and itchy eyes or “feeling ill” as a result of the smoke emissions from the sanitary landfill. (Note: this equally applies to workers in the private sector) This in turn causes great anxiety, stress and discomfort.
Should this continue it may lead to a rise in sick leave, high absenteeism, and increase of occupational illnesses, birth defects, reproductive problems, skin diseases, rise in (out of pocket) health care costs and by extension insurance premiums, Escalating matters; this contributes to heightened feelings of neglect and de-motivation and the loss of productivity among civil servants.
The consequence thereof is to be felt by everyone that depend heavily on public services and constrains the social and economic development of St. Maarten. To our dismay, some civil servants, “suffered in silence” and remained at the workplace as the toxic fumes filled the building.
Remember: “the first law of nature is self preservation”.
Furthermore, article 13 of the ILO Convention 155 concerning Occupational Safety and Health and the Working Environment, 1981 is very clear:
“A worker who has removed himself from a work situation which he has reasonable justification to believe presents an imminent and serious danger to his life or health shall be protected from undue consequences in accordance with national conditions and practice”.
Simply said, a worker has “the right to take reasonable steps to protect their health and safety”. Truthfully, no civil servant or worker ought to choose between their physical and mental wellbeing vs. reprisals for exercising their right to refuse unsafe work”. Government, is also an Employer, and has a responsibility to provide a safe and healthy workplace for its employees. Interestingly enough, in January 2018, a press release issued by the Ministry of Public Health announced that “Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) involve the health and safety of everyone involved not only the workers and the employers of a workplace but also the patrons.
Every employer and management therefore has a legal obligation and responsibility with regards to OSH (National Ordinance on Occupational Safety AB 2013 GT. No.438), namely:
- Keeping the workplace safe preventing danger;
- Taking reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of every person in the workplace;
- Employers shall be required to ensure that, as far as is reasonably practicable, the workplaces, machinery, equipment and processes under their control are safe and without risk to health;
- Employers shall be required to ensure that, so far as is reasonably practicable, the chemical, physical and biological substances and agents under their control are without risk to health when the appropriate measures of protection are taken;
- Employers shall be required to provide, where necessary, adequate protective clothing and protective equipment to prevent, so far as is reasonably practicable, risk of accidents or of adverse effects on health.
Simply said, Government must make an expedient decision and take decisive action and close the Government building, as was done in February 2018, whenever there are surface fires on the landfill.
To remain “open”, defies logic and might even suggest that “Governments’ business” takes priority over the health and safety of civil servants. God forbid that a worker or workers becomes seriously ill or worse due to the continued exposure to the toxic fumes while on the job. Studies, solicited and unsolicited advices, offers from Dutch municipalities to dispose up to “50% of the landfill”, special forums and presentations by experts and consultants have put forward many prudent recommendations and solutions.
In the meantime, “every time the landfill is set ablaze, says the people, tourists, and the environment suffers” and undermines our collective security and national economy.That being said, the WICSU/PSU Union is calling on the Government to develop a waste management system, that meets the highest international standards, for St. Maarten.
The Union also implores civil servants and their families to monitor and schedule routine health checkups with their house doctor to identify potential “concerns” in its early stages and take the necessary actions. In the final analysis, Government as an Employer must attach greater importance and priority to the security, health and safety of civil servants.
Quality public services is a key ingredient for sustainable development and economic growth and can only be realized and delivered when civil servants enjoy a healthy and safe working environment.
Working in an environment with toxic fumes will never become “the new normal”.
Clean air is and will forever remain a LEGITIMATE EXPECTATION & BASIC HUMAN RIGHT!!!
Riegnald “Bakari” Arrindell
General Secretary WICSU/PSU Union