Workplace safety inspectors have found toy helmets, shoddy guidelines warning of squirrels in Malta and a single project supervisor overseeing 500 sites at once, the country’s top health and safety official has revealed.

Occupational Health and Safety Authority CEO Mark Gauci shared examples of a lax attitude towards safety as the number of deaths in the workplace rose from three in 2019 to 10 so far this year, including four on construction sites.

Gauci said that “almost all” workplace accidents are due to human error. He raised concerns about project supervisors, who are legally required to safeguard health and safety on construction projects.

Video: Karl Andrew Micallef

“The project supervisor must closely supervise a project in all its stages to point out and correct any erroneous practices there and then,” Gauci said.

“How can one guy closely supervise 500 sites at once?”

He said that while not all project supervisors do poor work, some do not place any importance on the role.

As part of their job, project supervisors are obliged by law to draw up health and safety reports outlining how workers should safely perform their job.

Gauci said that some project supervisors have simply copied these documents from similar reports in other countries.

Inspectors have spotted paragraphs of instructions that do not apply to Malta, such as warnings that squirrels might nibble at cables, or that on particularly cold days, the ground would be frozen over and workers might slip.

General decline

Gauci was speaking to Times of Malta in an interview to mark 20 years since the creation of the OHSA.

While the number of deaths in the workplace has increased in the last three years, he argued that the death rate has been in a general decline since the formation of the authority. 

There were 8.1 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2003, gradually dropping to 3.7 deaths per 100,000 workers this year, according to OHSA stats.

The OHSA monitors workplaces, carries out random inspections and may stop works, issue fines and prosecute employers and employees.

But contrary to popular belief, Gauci said the OHSA “can never be at fault” for workplace incidents and fatalities, because despite being tasked with monitoring workplaces, it cannot provide round-the-clock surveillance.

Gauci said that the responsibility lies with workers themselves, their employers, developers and contractors to take the necessary precautions.

He said the OHSA, on the other hand, raises awareness, monitors workplaces and issues fines where needed.

His team of 12 inspectors has carried out 2,177 inspections so far this year, vetted 2,466 equipment certificates, issued 253 fines amounting to more than  €100,000 and initiated court prosecutions on 74 cases.

There is also a backlog of 600 cases waiting to appear before a magistrate.

Gauci asks his employees to retain some of the more absurd confiscated items, which are kept at the OHSA headquarters in Pietà.

On one occasion, inspectors found a construction worker was wearing a toy safety helmet.

A toy safety helmet and one that has been dangerously modified to give its owner some ‘ventilation’. Photos: Karl Andrew MicallefA toy safety helmet and one that has been dangerously modified to give its owner some ‘ventilation’. Photos: Karl Andrew Micallef

“It was a toy that children play with. We couldn’t believe it,” Gauci said.

“Another time, our inspectors found that a worker had felt too hot wearing the safety helmet and decided to slash open long slits into the side of it, for a ventilator effect. Of course, tampering with a safety helmet in even the slightest way completely compromises its integrity and it would have been completely useless had he been involved in an accident.”

Another object he highlights is a frayed, grey harness that caused its owner’s death.

“Unlike the other workers with the safety helmets, this one wanted to take the necessary precautions for his safety. But he bought a cheap harness of inferior quality,” Gauci said.

“It couldn’t take his weight, and when it ripped and snapped, he was dangling from a huge height. He fell and died in it... because of it.”

A cheap safety harness led to its owner’s death after it snapped.A cheap safety harness led to its owner’s death after it snapped.

However, he says workers are taking more precautions than ever and the fact that people constantly take pictures of illegalities and that every accident, big or small is reported in the media, proves that awareness has become ingrained in the culture.

He complained about what he dubs ‘the Only in Malta Syndrome’, arguing that construction sites are deemed dangerous everywhere in the world and workplace illegalities are common in all countries.

In Malta it feels like it is worse because construction projects are visible and are everywhere, he said.

Deaths at the workplace

126 people died while at work in the last 20 years.

● 61% died on construction sites

● 36% died after falling from a height on a construction site

● 33% of all the workers who died were foreign

● 31% of all the workers who died were self-employed

● 20% died in a traffic accident while at work

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