Early in the morning of Thursday 25 July, the bottom cone of a pressure vessel collapsed, says the Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union (FSGWU), and a worker was splashed with very hot cane juice. The worker, Samuela Sigatokacake, suffered severe burnings in 60 percent of his body, and was taken to the Intensive Care Unit of the Lautoka Hospital. Unfortunately, because of the injuries sustained, Mr Sigatokacake died on Sunday 28 July.
While Mr Sigatokacake’s case is still under investigation, it’s quite instructive to read the FSWGU press release, “Sugar Workers Mourn Colleague,” issued on 31 July, which underlines basic key OHS matters.
Some of the relevant issues mentioned by the FSGWU are:
- The release valve of the pressure vessel in question had not functioned since 2010, and “management was made aware by workers much earlier.”
- The vessel’s structure was said unstable, and in poor condition due to internal corrosion.
- On Monday 22 July, there some bursting through cracks in the vessel’s welding occurred. Engineers (re)welded the vessel and continued operating it.
- Apparently, this operational matter was not reported to the Ministry of Labour inspectors, nor the vessel was certified for operations.
- When the vessel collapsed, first aid was not available on site nor an ambulance ready to transfer Mr Sigatokacake to hospital.
This episode cannot of course be considered an accident, as the information reviewed points that something very bad was to happen at any time. It did happen to Mr Sigatokacake on 25 July.
In the IUF Global Sugar Program we devote time and resources to health and safety matters. There is more than one reason for this. To start, it’s a workers’ right to work in a safe and healthy environment, and the employer is primarily responsible for ensuring it. Then, as the press release states (and everyone knows) workers are the first ones able to identify problems in the actual operations – with more than good chances of proposing sensible solutions, as well. However, as our work also shows, a successful OHS program requires the obvious intervention of the regulatory government agency, and, more importantly, it has to be a bipartite task, an exercise in democratic ways in the running of an enterprise: the workers know but they have to be heard. The FSWGU says that management had been made aware of the condition of the pressure vessel, but nothing had been done. This approach is not only limited to Fiji’s sugar sector, however. Fortunately enough, sugar unions are educating management that while there’s no free lunch in this universe and everything has a financial implication, it’s more advantageous for everyone, including the company, to have a safer and healthier workplace for everyone.
This regrettable episode happened at a moment when the sugar mill workers and the FSGWU are taking on a difficult struggle to see their rights respected. See Fiji: FSGWU members vote to strike amidst intimidation tactics.
Sugar Workers Mourn Colleague. FSGWU Press Release, 31 July 2013 (Redirected to the site of the Fiji Trades Union Congress.)