From the Caribbean to the Gulf, Ria Sooknarine speaks to three influencers about how they have helped strengthen OSH in their country, and what more needs to be done to ensure future success.
One of my earliest childhood memories is waiting for my grandfather to get home every morning. He worked from 6pm to 6am in the sugar cane estate as a labourer. I remember his hands being charred from harvesting sugar cane after the fields were burned, and scars on his arms and legs from harvesting injuries.
At the time, there was little consideration from the employer regarding the safety of workers in the workplace. Fast forward three decades and health and safety practices in the workplace have been visibly transformed.
Such transformation would not have been possible if people hadn’t stepped forward, got involved and volunteered their time to influence the direction of occupational health and safety at legislative, organisational and community levels.
Now, OSH influencers from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and the United Arab Emirates share their contributions, many of which helped to shape the profession into what it is today. We start with my own country, Trinidad and Tobago.
Curt Cadet GradIOSH
HSE trainer, coach, mentor, OSH advocate and influencer, Trinidad and Tobago
Why did you pursue a career in OSH and what significant changes have you seen in the profession?
I began work in the energy sector in Trinidad and Tobago in 1979, having joined straight out of trade school. On completion of my apprenticeship, I started my career in a power plant as an instrument fitter and worked my way up to senior instrument and control technician. I witnessed accidents resulting in major injury and death. In those early years, safety was regulated under the Factories Ordinance Act (1950), which derived from the UK Factories Ordinance Act (1844). Safety was not integrated into work practices. There were several practices which would not have conformed with current standards, such as there being no mandatory requirement to wear PPE.
The company would routinely host safety meetings and I was sometimes assigned as the note taker. This is where my interest in OSH ignited – I felt that a change was needed in the way work was being done.
Since the company was unionised at the time, I attended many safety-related seminars hosted by the trade union. The company was subsequently privatised and the first job that was advertised was for a safety officer. I was encouraged by many colleagues to apply, which I did and was successful in securing the position in 1995. At the time, I had no academic knowledge or training in OSH. I was selected for the position based on my plant experience and the ability to communicate effectively with all levels of the organisation.
I felt that a change was needed in the way work was being done
During my 25 years in OSH, I’ve witnessed significant changes in Trinidad and Tobago. These include the enactment of the TT Occupational Safety and Health Act in 2004, and the establishment of the TT OSH Agency and Authority responsible for enforcing the new legislation.
Companies began to re-engineer their business models with a focus on core operations. This often resulted in downsizing maintenance staff, who were replaced with contracted service providers. It was felt at the time that it was more viable to hire a contracted skilled maintenance workforce.
More organisations and committees were established with an OSH focus, such as the Point Lisas Energy Association (PLEA). PLEA is a committee comprised of CEOs in the Point Lisas Industrial Estate – the largest in the Caribbean, which comprises energy-intensive industries.
In terms of academia, the NEBOSH general certificate programme was one of the first internationally recognised courses to be introduced in Trinidad and Tobago in around 2004.
How did you get involved in the changes?
Throughout my career, I volunteered in multiple OSH initiatives, which were fundamental in shifting the paradigm of OSH in the country.
In 1996, I got involved with the American Chamber of Commerce of Trinidad and Tobago committee. At the time, the committee was focused on environmental issues, due to the proposed environmental legislation, but soon began advocating for health, safety and environment (HSE) legislation and providing input to the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of the Environment. I remained on the HSE committee for over 22 years. During this time, I served as the chair for several years and was presented with an award for long and meritorious service in the promotion of HSE.
I was among the first group of HSE managers who met with the PLEA CEOs in 1999 and the HSE subcommittee was established. I was an active member of the committee for 20 years and served as chair for several years. I represented PLEA in many stakeholder engagements regarding OSH draft legislation, which included both the OSH Act and Regulations, and the development of industry-led standards.
One standard was the 10-hour PLEA Passport Programme, which is still in use today. I was one of the architects of this programme, which focused on basic training in OSH for contractor workers in the industrial estate.
The OSH Risk Assessment (RA) Standard was developed and published in 2008 by the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards (TTBS). At the time, I was approached by the TTBS to collaborate with them as a representative of the energy sector, together with the OSH Agency to plan and deliver a workshop for the roll-out of the TT Standard in Risk Assessment (TTS 620:2008).
As a member of IOSH since 2005, I served in the Executive Committee for the Caribbean brand for more than 13 years in several roles, culminating in the role of chair for four years from 2014-2018. During my time as chair, I was key in transforming the branch by bringing more structure, introducing management principles and increasing engagement with stakeholders such as government ministries, state agencies and not for profit organisations. I also led discussions with ministers, the Factories Inspectorate, business chambers and trade union organisations in Barbados to promote OSH in the workplace.
I’ve campaigned for the improvement of existing OSH legislation in Trinidad and Tobago, representing the IOSH Caribbean branch in stakeholder engagements for the drafting of OSH legislation and revisions to the OSH Act. I was also a lecturer for the NEBOSH National General Certificate for more than 10 years.
What do you think is needed today to continue the progression of OSH?
It is essential that work continues in creating modern OSH regulations and codes of practice that are fit for purpose. There is a need for regulators to have more focus on enlightenment and education and less on prosecution, but OSH professionals need to get involved in creating and sustaining the change.
Internship/mentorship programmes for people entering the OSH profession are necessary. On the availability and access to academic courses, there is a proliferation of qualified professionals who lack a proper grounding in the application of HS management and accident prevention in the workplace.
There is also too much emphasis on theories regarding human and organisational performance and human behaviour programmes. There is a need for understanding real risk and developing fit-for-purpose controls that are pragmatic, practical and easily understood.
Harold Oxley CMIOSH
Registered occupational hygienist and managing director, REA EnviroHealth International, OSH influencer, Barbados
Why did you pursue a career in occupational hygiene (OH) and what significant changes have you seen?
I began my early career as a factory inspector in the labour department of Barbados. At the time, my core area of responsibility was safety. I was employed in this position for about three years, and when the labour department acted upon its decision to develop its occupational hygiene capabilities I was selected to be formally trained as an occupational hygienist.
The concept of OH was new in Barbados. I felt that incorporating OH in the workplace was a leap in the right direction as employers placed little emphasis on controlling hazardous agents – biological, chemical and physical – in the workplace that could cause illness or discomfort; or on evaluating the extent of risks due to exposure to these agents.
I’ve spent the last 30 years in the OSH profession, with more than 10 years dedicated to occupational hygiene. I am the only registered occupational hygienist in Barbados.
The most significant change I have seen is the transitioning of risks in industries from using manual labour to incorporating machinery into business processes
The most significant change I’ve seen is the transitioning of risks in industries from using manual labour to incorporating machinery into business processes. When I visited a cement plant several years ago, the furnace operator was exposed to heat stress, burns, loud noise and ionising radiation. I revisited the facility recently and noticed how drastically the plant had changed. The furnace operator was now sitting in an air-conditioned room, monitoring the flame on a camera, eliminating the risks of hearing loss, thermal burns and heat stress. The worker was now exposed to health risks such as ergonomics from sitting, and vision problems from looking at a monitor all day. The occupational hygienist is therefore now required to assess these health risks.
As industries are transitioning towards engineering controls, employees are still exposed to hazardous agents. Employers may not be aware or may choose to ignore these ‘new’ hazards as the immediate impact is not visible. If an employee falls off a scaffold, he would be injured, and the consequences would be visible. But the effects from being exposed to factors such as vibration, noise and dust are latent and would not be apparent until much later.
The industry has changed where processes have been refined to computer-based, relation-based and chemical-based. Several activities no longer pose major safety risks, but health risks persist.
How did you get involved in the changes?
My involvement and participation in several committees and initiatives allowed me to directly influence the direction of national policies, standards and corporate decisions regarding occupational safety and health in the Caribbean region.
As the deputy chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) in Barbados for several years, I was instrumental in advising the labour minister on OSH-related policies and legislation. I served on the technical committee for the development of the Barbados Health and Safety at Work Act (2005), which this replaced the 1982 Factories Ordinance Act.
I served as chairman of the Indoor Air Quality Standard Technical Committee, which was convened by the Barbados National Standards Institution. We were successful in drafting this local standard.
Introducing students to OSH as a career path early on in their academic journeys is crucial
For the Pan American Health Organisation and World Health Organization, I was the technical expert in the Caribbean region, assisting in establishing an OH policy framework and training OSH professionals in OH.
I assisted in supporting the profession by securing the equipment needed to do scientific testing. This equipment allows employers to have access to empirical testing, which could be compared with occupational limits and provided with technical results. I was also instrumental in moving away from physical OSH inspections and observations, and promoted empirical risk assessments based on sampling and monitoring.
I’ve long advocated for OH – as a speaker at local and regional OSH conferences, a lecturer for NEBOSH programmes where I promoted the need to focus on OH aspects in the OSH profession, as well as facilitating training at both policy and national levels for OSH inspectors in Trinidad, Antigua and Guyana.
What do you think is needed today to continue the progression of OH?
There is still much that is needs to be done. Holistic OH programmes are not yet available locally in the Caribbean – OH is merely a component or a module within some larger ones. People label themselves as Ohs but aren’t competent or registered.
To be a registered occupational hygienist, people would need to be trained specifically at international facilities, which offer them access to the equipment needed to perform in their role. This type of training using the required equipment is not available in the Caribbean.
The equipment needed for OH is costly and not readily available. As there are no legal requirements or local guidance to conduct specific types of testing to monitor health conditions of workers, there is limited demand for occupational hygienists. As a consequence, local laboratories will not invest in the analytical equipment needed. Instead, OH professionals collect samples that are then shipped overseas for processing.
Although local regulations and standards have been developed for quite some time, they’re still in draft and have not yet been enforced.
In the absence of local standards, occupational exposure limits have not been identified and need to be developed or adopted. Employers are guided by the Barbados Safety and Health at Work Act 2005 – this act coins phrases such as ‘take reasonable steps’, ‘excessive noise”, ‘adequate’, ‘appropriate’ and so on, and are subjective to the employer.
Once occupational exposure limits have been identified and legislated, this will drive the development of and demand for OH, as well as contribute towards ensuring workers are protected from exposure to a range of chemical, radiant and biological hazards.
Islam Adra CMIOSH
OSH leader and culture architect, motivational speaker, OSH influencer, United Arab Emirates
Why did you pursue a career in OSH and what significant changes have you seen?
I didn’t select health and safety as my career path. In fact, I had never even heard of it. Instead, I spent four and a half years working towards my degree in mechanical engineering. However, I felt the market was saturated with mechanical engineers and I had lost my passion for what I’d spent almost half a decade studying. I yearned for something different.
I sought advice from some of my father’s friends who suggested I consider health and safety. I did quite a bit of research and was inspired – this was a field where I could wake up every morning with the mission of keeping people safe and healthy. This concept resonated with me, so I registered for a master’s in environmental engineering with a specialisation in occupational health and safety. I’ve been in the OSH profession for more than 12 years and have never looked back since.
I’ve worked with numerous Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 companies across a raft of industries and experienced health and safety practices across several continents. Though OSH maturity will undoubtedly differ from country to country and from company to company, I’ve noticed incremental improvements in OSH awareness as well as the introduction of several OSH laws and enforcement authorities regionally.
Countries striving to improve their OSH conditions should inspire themselves with the US Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970) and the UK Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), which are revolutionary milestones in OSH history that fundamentally set the scene for the profession globally. We should also not forget the great work of organisations like the International Labour Organization and IOSH that are helping accelerate this progress.
Beyond the legal realm, I’ve also witnessed some encouraging developments such as the increased use of technology in the form of software to facilitate OSH management and virtual reality to ensure more immersive training for workers. The concept of safety culture has also gained traction with many organisations recently as they seek to take the next steps beyond management systems and compliance.
How did you get involved in the changes made?
I’ve been active on social media and have been writing, as well as speaking, at conferences and forums globally to share my thoughts and experiences, and to inspire both OSH and non-OSH professionals to make a difference.
I was the former chair of the IOSH UAE branch and used this platform to raise the profile of the profession in the region and to drive positive change. Our social media presence, our focus on promoting more females and students to take OSH on as a career path, and our sell-out OSH events have been highlights of our success strategy.
One of our objectives was to attract more natives in the region to adopt OSH as a profession and to encourage local universities and colleges to offer OSH programmes. Traditionally, OSH has been an expatriate-dominated field due to a lack of local skilled labour and we wanted to get the ball rolling further in this arena.
I also worked with OSH professionals in various sectors to offer the UAE branch membership a view behind the scenes and the opportunity to witness varying business operations from a safety standpoint. These included site visits at Expo2020, Lepelle – a water theatrical performance – and Emirates Global Aluminium.
In addition, I worked with regulators at the Environment Agency of Abi Dhabi, the Middle East’s largest environmental regulator and the authority responsible for supervising the implementation of the HSE framework at the Emirate level.
What do you think is needed today to continue the progression of OSH?
There is a feeling among safety professionals that we have reached a plateau when it comes to improvements in OSH performance, and so several contemporary academics are challenging some of the foundational theories and principles upon which OSH is based, such as Heinrich’s accident triangle and the effectiveness of zero harm policies.
More work still needs to be done from an academic perspective to thoroughly explore these proposals further, but it is healthy to critique our beliefs and assumptions if we wish to progress, especially if this means that we can help reduce workplace fatalities and accidents further.
In my own PhD research, I am looking at safety leadership as a construct in and of itself. I believe safety leadership is an extremely powerful leadership style that can really turn companies around and more research is necessary to fully understand its underlying mechanisms.
OSH is an extremely rich field that touches on many different areas of study from engineering to psychology, and I look forward to seeing what the next decade has in store in terms of progressive research.
Beyond academic research, OSH professionals should get more involved in driving positive change in their respective countries, especially in places where health and safety legislation is not as mature as it could be. Whether this is organising awareness conferences or forums, establishing a strong lobby to collaborate with government entities, or holding workshops at the grassroots level to help SMEs improve their safety cultures, OSH professionals should not undermine the impact they can have.
Introducing students to OSH as a career path early on in their academic journeys is crucial. This would provide school students with basic information on OSH and enable them to make an informed choice when selecting their field of study and career trajectory.
There are many ‘safety’ professionals in the industry and not many ‘OSH’ professionals. When safety goes wrong, the consequences are visible immediately (or example, electrocution or death from a fall). But the negative health consequences of work tend to take some time to show up (for example, musculoskeletal disorders or noise induced hearing loss) and so the focus on the H in OSH is not as urgent. As OSH professionals, we need to pay more attention to health – both physical and mental to truly manage OSH risks in the workplace.
Impact and adoption
Over the years, the field of health and safety has certainly grown, as has its importance in today’s world of work.
The three influencers interviewed here have all worked towards the development of the profession and they continue to have a great impact. Indeed, there is still a lot to be done to ensure that OSH principles are adapted, adopted and harmoniously interwoven into everyday business practices, but we are on the right path.
Ria is a volunteer for IOSH and a quality, health, safety and environment management (QHSE) lead at United Independent Petroleum Marketing Company Limited (UNIPET)