Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tornado Struck Port Workers Minutes After Warning

Labour Minister Dion Foulkes (Journal file photo)

By IANTHIA SMITH

Workers at the Freeport Container Port (FCP) were only given a three-minute warning before that deadly tornado hit Grand Bahama on March 29.

On Monday, Labour Minister Dion Foulkes tabled a 33-page report compiled by International Labour Organization (ILO) expert Jacques Obadia.

According to the report, the Port was not made aware of possible tornado activity on the island until 11:17 a.m.

"The tornado struck the FCP at approximately 11:20 a.m. and was gone before 11:30 a.m.," the report added.

Despite finding major shortcomings, deficiencies and downfalls at the FCP, an investigation by a renowned occupational health and safety expert said there is no telling if the deaths and injuries that occurred in the March 29 Grand Bahama tornado could have been avoided.

Following the tornado, the Ministry of Labour commissioned an independent investigation to review the incident.

Despite a cloud of controversy surrounding his involvement with the investigation and claims that he "would not be fair in the investigations," Mr. Obadia conducted his probe from May 10 to 14.

Almost immediately after the tornado FCP owners were blamed for the deaths.

Many cited unsafe working conditions.

In the report, Mr. Obadia noted major inefficiencies and shortcomings on the FCP’s part.

"In the case at issue, the emergency preparedness and the FCP’s safety organisation were geared to cater to extreme weather conditions in the form of hurricanes and other storms and not for sudden events such as the tornado incident at issue," the report said.

"Among the facts that the expert (Mr. Obadia) has been able to determine as a result of the investigation, reference is made to the absence of an inefficient system for detecting and relaying adequate and appropriate information to the workers in the FCP regarding the relevant weather conditions. This is regrettable and should be avoided."

But he said due to the unpredictable nature of tornadoes, "it is improbable that the existence of a more efficient weather relaying system could have had a significant impact to prevent the events on March 29 in the FCP."

Around 11:20 that morning the tornado ripped through the island and was gone in less than 10 minutes.

In the aftermath, Container Port workers, 45-year-old Cleveland Lowe, 41-year-old Michael Young and 23-year-old Shawn Saunders were killed and several others were injured.

The report said according to prescribed safety procedures, the weather conditions were such that the cranes should have been pinned down, but they were not.

Mr. Obadia’s report added that, again, given the random acts of tornadoes, it is "impossible to determine whether the outcome of the incident would have been less or more severe in terms of injuries to employees and property damage if all or at least two of the cranes had been pinned down."

The report also found that there were shortcomings in the communications systems, the emergency response equipment was partially deficient, all required safety training apparently had not been carried out and the nature and severity of the incoming thunderstorm reached the FCP with insufficient time to fully secure the terminal.

"These shortcomings need to be addressed as a matter of urgency, as they may have an incidence on the general level of emergency preparedness in the port," the report said. "In the case at issue, however, it is the view of the expert that due to the brevity of the incident these shortcomings did not have any significant impact on the outcome."

Mr. Obadia noted that although it might be difficult to significantly increase the level of preparedness for a tornado passage and to mitigate its impact, a strong emphasis on prevention might improve the FCP’s safety level under normal or less extreme weather conditions.

The occupational health and safety expert also made other recommendations.

"The availability of a focused and well promoted regulatory framework, as well as the establishment of effective social dialogue, the provision and effective carrying out of occupational safety and health training, the development of skills and timely access to reliable knowledge are critical elements in a successful management of occupational health and safety and a building if a safety culture, both at the national and enterprise levels," the report said.

The report also made recommendations for the government.

"The Occupational Safety and Health is governed under the 2002 Health and Safety at Work Act. While the act has a good general framework, it can be strengthened by the development of regulations specific to different economic sectors," the report said.

"Consideration should be given to amending the Health and Safety at Work Act in order to more closely accord with the provisions of the ILO’s Safety and Health Convention, The Bahamas should formally ratify the main Occupational Safety and Health Convention 198 and Protocol 2002 related to recording occupational accidents."

The report said The Bahamas should also develop a set of technical regulations defining occupational health and safety requirements for particular occupations and hazards and strengthen and expand the Occupational Health and Safety training of labour inspectors.

"The Bahamas should participate in regional occupational safety networking systems which are designed to exchange information," the report said.

The report also suggested that government officials advance the professional certification of occupational health and safety practitioners in order to ensure that skills and experience in this area are updated periodically.

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