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Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Legislation: The Challenge Ahead

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The previous 13th Congress of the Philippines saw 2 bills on Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety (OEHS) issues being filed at the Lower House. Despite efforts of the authors of the house bills, it never made through due to many reasons. It was an election year and politicians would rather erect a waiting shed in the middle of nowhere where no vehicles pass by than legislate laws. Add to the fact the government's priorities was Charter Change.

The first bill, House Bill 1362 (HB1362) or the Act to Rationalize the Administration and Enforcement of All Laws on Occupational Safety and Health Standards and Environmental Protection Purposes was filed by Rep. Roseller L. Barinaga of the 2nd District, Zamboanga del Norte. According to Rep. Barinaga, HB1362 “seeks to rationalize the implementation of national policies, standards and regulations relating to occupational safety and health and environmental protection” since no government agency was tasked to lead and coordinate the other agencies involved in implementing the national program.

Section 2 of HB 1362 delegated the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) as the lead agency tasked to coordinate and monitor “...activities of all government agencies involved in the implementation of all laws to promote occupational safety and health” while Section 3 delegated the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as the lead agency with on environmental protection. Section 4 tasked the Department of Health (DoH) as the lead on sanitation.

Section 5 (a) provides that those who are guilty of violating the existing standards need to pay administrative fines of “ less that one hundred pesos nor more than ten thousand pesos a day...starting from the date of the violation is uncovered until the same has been corrected by the offender.”

On the other hand, HB 4184 or the Act to Govern Occupational Safety and Health in the Construction Industry filed by Rep. Rozzano Rufino B. Biazon from the Lone District of Muntinlupa City is industry specific. HB 4184 aims to adopt the provisions of DoLE Department Order 13 (D.O. 13) “Guidelines Governing Safety and Health in the Construction Industry” and make the D.O. 13 a permanent guideline.

Section 6 of above mentioned bill tackles policies on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and cites Rule 1080 (Personal Protective Equipment and Devices) of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards as the baseline. Section 7.1 on the other hand sets that every site as defined in the bill must have the minimum required Safety Personnel. namely a full-time general construction safety and health officer tasked to oversee the Construction Safety and Health program while Section 9 includes Construction Safety Signage as early warning devices both for workers and larger populace.

Section 11 details the composition of the Construction Safety and Health Committee while Section 16 outlines the obligations of the employer in providing “...welfare facilities in order to ensure humane working conditions” which include but not limited to safe drinking water, sanitary and washing facilities for men and women and suitable accommodation, also for men and women.

Section 19 stipulates the penalties for violations. A minimum fine of PhP 100,000 and/or imprisonment of not more than 1 year for first time offenders and a maximum of PhP 500,00 and/or imprisonment of not more than 2 years for 3 or more offenses.

Room for improvement

If you laid all of our laws end to end, there would be no end.
-- Mark Twain

One cannot argue the the rationale behind these 2 bills. Indeed prudence dictates there must be more laws to serve as guidepost for health and safety and as options for workers to pursue their inherent right to a safe workplaces. But the bills mentioned above are far from beneficial.

HB 1362 aims to rationalize the implementation of standards in workplaces by delegating the DoLE as the lead agency and the bureau under the department with regards to employers adherence to existing standards. But how can the DoLE implement existing standards when it cannot even inspect workplaces. In 2002, the Bureau of Working Conditions admitted having only 59 inspectors tasked to check more than 700,000 firms.

Corruption within the DoLE must also be rooted out since this makes all laws impotent. Unions have complained of under-the-table deals between the management and corrupt inspectors. Even the method of inspection is time-based and not risk-based. DoLE lumps all industry and assumes that annual inspections are enough but this negates the fact that workplaces like mines are more prone to fatal accidents compared to an accounting office and therefore needs frequent inspections.

HB 4184 on the other hand focuses on the medium to long term implementation of better working standards in a very hazardous industry but has none on the short-term or immediate aspect of OEHS. Sec. 7.1 provides for a full-time safety and health officer but the mandate is limited to mere overseeing of the safety program. In Australian OHS laws, the Health and Safety Officer can order to immediate halt all operations in an area where it is unsafe for workers to continue working and both the unions and the management must comply. In a very hazardous industry like construction, as the rationale of the bills concludes, such powers to stop work must exist. No provision for such powers are found in the bill.

Section 6 reiterates the need for PPE but fails to place the use of PPE in the proper perspective. In the Hierarchy of Control in Risk Management, PPE ranks the lowest, with elimination and substitution of hazards taking the top two spots respectively. The reduction of risk made by wearing protective equipment in a vary hazardous area is very minimal, hence the hierarchy of control. Many people still has the notion that hard hats and safety shoes can save the day for workers and this myth must be broken.

Even the penalties for violations are like “slaps on the wrist” and the price to pay are too small to act as deterrent for potential offenders. The guiding principle should be that it will cost less to follow the standards than to break it and not the other way around.