It’s common to hear that Occupational Safety and Health issues (OSH) are everyone’s responsibility. Paraphrasing Orwell’s Animal Farm, however, sometimes it feels like it’s more the responsibility of some than of everybody. For some, it’s the suffering of health ailments that might greatly affect their quality of life; for others, it might be only a financial issue.
As part of the OSH work by the IUF Global Sugar Program and the Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation and Allied Workers (KUSPAW), grass-root union members were encourage to look at and document the actual conditions at their workplace, to talk to colleagues and others about them, and to share their findings with other union branches – and by extension, with unions in the IUF global sugar network. In this context, Miriam Wanyama, KUSPAW member at the Nzoia Sugar Estate, looked at the question of Malaria. The following is based on her initial findings and her on-going research.
The activities of the IUF Global Sugar project in Kenya have been an eye opener to workers and other stakeholders; they have created awareness among them. Some of the activities are workplace “inspections,” which became very important when encouraging workers to look at working conditions and come up with recommendations to both the union and management. In the case of Nzoia Sugar Company, management has been taking the recommendations positively, and, as a result, we have several worker-friendly projects and infrastructure is newly built. For instance, we have an incinerator to safely dispose no longer used products, there’s the building of open-space offices and the building new ablution blocks and new offices for the OSH and the Training departments, among others.
It is important to note that this work is done by workers themselves, striving to survey and report as accurately as possible what the work environment is. The surveys are also case studies that can be adopted in the promotion of good health and safety practices in workplaces.
This is an specific survey look at the environment around the Cane Yard in Nzoia Sugar Estate, the state of the drainage system, and the cane handling at weighbridge. The idea came as one IUF Sugar workshops discussed the possible connection between stagnant water in the cane yard with the incidence of malaria among workers. And, as a step in improving production process, to avoid cane wasting and to minimize extraneous matters before the cane enters the mill.
Nzoia’s Cane Yard
The Cane Yard comprises the cane weighbridge, a vast area for the offloading of cane, and the cane feed table. All these are manned by workers. In addition, there are also tractor drivers and helpers, who sometimes have to wait in a long queue to offload the cane. When the factory is operating, the Cane Yard is a beehive of activity.
During the raining season, the Cane Yard presents a worrying aspect because of the poor drainage system, and, by comparison to other factories, Nzoia seems to have the poorest conditions in its Cane Yard, which was constructed at the time of Nzoia’s inception in 1978. According to my research, for effective operations, the Cane Yard should have a inclined and flat landscape to allow water to run off during the rainy season and, also, to easily picking up spilled cane. No major changes have been introduced since the date of building. Because of the poor terrain, tractors spill cane into the stagnant water. The stagnant water then becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other waterborne diseases and pests.
Workers in the Cane Yard area and one worker’s experience
When taking a look at the rate at which employees in the cane yard area (weighbridge, cane yard and cane table) are treated at the company’s Clinic, I was left with the impression that something was not right.
My observations then focused on one employee, who had requested to be transferred away from the weighbridge section. She had complained that the working in the weighbridge area did not favour her health, as she had been treated too many times at the Clinic. Her concerns were not taken seriously as some thought she in fact was afraid of working at the weighbridge because of the sensitivity of such a job (weighing cane and therefore paying for it). The matter was taken by the union, who was asked to provide some information on the case. The union collected information from the Clinic, and also talked to the employee and the company’s medical doctor. The case was eventually dismissed because it was deemed that the problem did not originate from working at the weighbridge area.
Whether the origin of the employee’s ailment relates to her work in the cane yard area is still an issue with the union. In the meantime, what became relevant was the information collected in relation to this case. What follows is only a brief description of the situation, but it clearly provides a direction for any future research and the kind of action to improve such a situation.
In the 16-month period from March 2012 to July 2013, the employee in case was treated eight times for malaria only, in addition to an undetermined number of visits to the Clinic due to other ailments.
In a regular treatment for malaria the cost incurred by the Clinic is around 900 Kenyan shillings per treatment (about USD 11.20) which covers drugs (e.g. anti-malaria, pain relievers, antibiotics) and laboratory tests. Of course, another health issue then may appear for a sick worker: repeating the same drugs several times may favour developing some resistance to those drugs, and they require stronger and more expensive drugs. Also, because of several malaria bouts, patients run the risk of developing other health complications, either because of a rather excessive use of drugs and/or the weakening of their immune system.
I estimated some of the costs related to her absence from work, and only in relation to the malaria episodes. The usual time-off for malaria is between 2 to 3 days. In Nzoia, we have a 44-hour work week. For the March 2012-July 2013 period, the employee fell sick eight times. Therefore, I estimated that something between 144 to 216 man-hours were lost due to malaria: 9 hours per day, times 2 or 3 days, times 8 episodes. In addition, we have to add the overtime paid to the worker who has to replace the sick worker while under recovery.
From the IUF Sugar’s corner
We do expect that Miriam will continue her research and monitoring of Malaria in Nzoia Sugar Company, and continue sharing her findings with the IUF sugar network.
As a trade union organisation, the IUF is mostly concerned with the right of workers to a safe(r) and healthy(ier) work environment, but our work constantly reminds everyone else that OSH issues affect management as well. Malaria, in this case, is not a worker-only sickness.