Occupational health and safety standards can only be raised by speeding up court proceedings, delivering harsher judgments and beefing up enforcement resources, according to the safety watchdog.

Mark Gauci, the CEO of the Occupational Health and Safety Authority (OHSA), was reacting to the recently-published re-port by the National Audit Office (NAO), which focused on the construction industry.

In his conclusions, the auditor general expressed concern that minor construction projects were not being monitored, leading to a series of “near misses” going under the radar.

The NAO has recommended lowering the threshold for the size of projects that the OHSA is notified about. Another concern was the lack of a proper management information system, as in certain cases the authority was still relying on paperwork to record its activities, as well as the absence of an exhaustive checklist for onsite inspections.

'Malta’s fatal accidents and injuries among lowest in EU'

Gauci said that the overriding consideration the NAO seemed to have overlooked was that Malta’s rate of fatal accidents and injuries was among the lowest across the EU and had been in decline for years.

He said that according to statistical models based on reported accidents per year, there are an estimated 60,000 near misses in the country.

If one had to monitor all construction site activities, these would be in excess of 20,000, of which over 12,000 would be new development permits issued each year.

“Widening the notification system would solve nothing as it would be impossible to have enough inspectors,” Gauci said.

“Moreover, most of the fatalities occur on sites about which the OHSA would have been notified. Such a recommendation would just increase red tape.

“Accidents may also happen as a result of a mistake or bad decisions made on the spot and not necessarily due to unsafe equipment or workplace.”

There are an estimated 60,000 ‘near misses’ in Malta, according to statistical models

As for the concerns on the checklist, Gauci said it would make no sense having a 10-page document to fill with hundreds of boxes to tick.

The authority focuses on the management systems in place rather than attempting to identify all hazards and quantify risks on behalf of the client and project supervisor as suggested by the NAO, he said.

At present, the OHSA has 14 inspectors, some of whom are not specialised in construction but in areas like chemical and biological agents or gas and fuels.

“It would make no sense sending people with this kind of expertise on construction sites,” Gauci said.

He pointed out that in pre-accession talks for EU membership in 2004, Malta had committed itself to have 20 generalist inspectors. To date, this commitment has not yet materialised.

He added that they always advocated a staggered increase over three to five years but no such funds have been allocated in all these years.

According to the OHSA chief this is only the start of the problem hindering enforcement.

410 cases before the courts are yet to start

“As we speak, there are 410 cases before the courts which are yet to start, some of which go back quite some time,” he said.

Since works on construction sites are allowed to resume from the moment the breach is addressed, there are instances of repeated breaches in the same project, as court action would still be pending.

“This is a huge source of frustration as it is clear that enforcement is not serving as a deterrent,” Gauci said.

The OHSA chief said they had also expressed concern with the NAO that the punishment inflicted by the courts was lenient at times. There have been cases whereby the fine inflicted in fatal cases totalled just €4,000.

Gauci said that it was regretful that the NAO ignored such concerns  in it report.

“Had these stumbling block issues been flagged we would have been in a better position to pile pressure to speed up court proceedings and be given much needed resources,” he said. 

Gauci also pointed out that apart from the NAO they were continuously scrutinised by the European Commission which, he said, had identified the OHSA as a model of good practice for other member states.

As for the recommendation to have an automated management information system, the OHSA chief said they had been asking for funds way before the matter was flagged by the NAO.

On the other hand, Gauci said that the existing system was serving the authority well because no major flaws were found during the audit.

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