The proposed Health and Safety at Work Act of May 2000 is intended to secure the health and safety of workers and innocent bystanders and to control explosive, flammable or dangerous substances. In the jargon of the day these are understandable “politically correct” objectives for every country. It seems on the surface to be as correct for The Bahamas as boiled fish for breakfast and peas and rice for supper.
However, nothing could be further from the truth and the Government should be wise enough to withdraw this proposal. The act is extremely invasive and disruptive of business enterprise, wasteful of scarce resources and corrupting in its effects.
Section 4(3) & (4) allows the Minister of Labour to appoint “safety representatives from amongst the employees” of any business who will represent the employees…and it requires the employer to consult with that representative on matters of health and safety.
Section 10(1) & (2) and Section 18 provide for the appointment of Inspectors who have the power to enter any business when the Inspector is of the opinion that a situation is dangerous. This power is not tempered as in the United States by a need for prior judicial review of such entry. And…the Inspectors are fully empowered to examine, investigate, take samples, require the production of books or documents and issue “Improvement” and “Prohibition” notices under penalty of “summary conviction to a fine of five thousand dollars.”
These provisions must be evaluated as they stand and also within the context of certain realities.
The Act creates a new bureaucracy that will write and enforce standards on how the details of business are conducted. The U. S. has 30-years of experience with such legislation that is costly and complex.
For instance, there is a standard for scaffolds used in the construction industry that was established in August 1996. Already the detailed standard may need changes to cover the distance that the decking may extend beyond the ends of the scaffold, the minimum width of the roof brackets, the grounding of the scaffold during welding operations and the grade of the planks used.
Another example is in California agriculture. The modern equivalent of the short-handled hoe (“el brazo del diablo” or the arm of the devil) used in tilling soil was outlawed 24 years ago because of the strain caused on the back of its user. However, in bell pepper, onion and asparagus fields today pruning is done with knives six to eight inches long. Now litigation is in process to include such knives under the short-handled hoe standard and halt their use. In The Bahamas one wonders how would a Health and Safety bureaucracy deal with the wide spread use of the machete in gardening and farming.
The creation of such a new bureaucracy fosters the costly growth of government. Past and present Governments have demonstrated an inability to balance their fiscal budgets and limit the growth in their expenditures.
The Government is inept at managing services that range from air transport to the mail. Politics dominates all decisions rather than business or economic considerations and there is an overwhelming lack of managerial and technical skills. There is no reason to believe that the administration of a new Health and Safety bureaucracy would not suffer from these same deficiencies.
Private business has a natural self-interest in the health and safety of its employees. A good example of the responsiveness of business to the reality of the workplace is in the area of on-the-job training. A recent Bahamian business survey shows that on-job-training expenditures have risen over 70% during the past 5-years without government intervention of any kind. There have been no comparable surveys done on the health and safety standards of Bahamian business that substantiate the need for this Act.
Such legislation creates rent taking and corruption opportunities. In practice the proliferation of laws and regulations results in an inevitable growth of corruption. In countries as India, Italy and Venezuela, for instance, the record is very clear…excessive laws and regulations corrupt the governmental function and ultimately produce economic stagnation and political instability.
For the economic health of the Bahamas the Health and Safety at Work Act of May 2000 should be quietly withdrawn and relegated to a shredder in the Ministry of Labour.