In Pursuit of Safety

When we hear the word “safety”, what comes to mind are the things we ought to do to “stay out of trouble”. In the civilized world of engineering, safety is a very serious concept, so serious that it has produced a burgeoning set of rules, regulations and standards, inside a billion-dollar industry populated by safety experts. However, many persons and organisations in Nigeria are yet to imbibe safety consciousness into their psyche.

Recently, I witnessed a staff of one of the electricity distribution companies in Nigeria carrying out a reconnection exercise on an electric pole. Some customers had been disconnected, and his job was to fix the breach. This simple reconnection exercise caught my interest, and I hurriedly pulled out my phone to take a picture.

The technician in question looked quite haggard. Although this can be forgiven considering the dirty “work clothes” worn by many technicians, I could not ignore his footwear—simple rubber slippers. He also had no gloves on his hands. As if these were not enough, there was no ladder and harness for climbing the electric pole. It’s either that disco employs persons with “monkey-climbing” skills, or their recruits are sent to train with monkeys. The pole, being wooden, had stumps on it. The technician expertly climbed up the pole, held the two affected cables, and used his bare hands to twist the ends—very professional, with no recourse to restrictive safety rules. At least, he had a plier to finish the job!

This technician works for a company that is supposed to obey safety rules endorsed by the engineering profession. He is supposed to have personal protective equipment (PPE) comprised of insulated safety boots, insulated gloves, hard hat, good-fitting clothes, combined with a structurally-sound ladder and a harness to keep him from falling. He was not given these things (my assumption), yet he was sent to climb an electric pole. If he was given, but failed to use them, then it is a fault of his supervisor and permissive company culture. My shrewd enquiries showed that the reconnection job was approved (not illegal). If something bad were to happen to him, a guiltless devil would have been blamed for harming a young man.

Whereas it will have been heartening to say this was just a one-time occurrence, sadly, unsafe actions are the norm, not the exception, in Nigeria. Apart from the obvious ones such as people driving without seat belts or motorcyclists seeing no need for helmets, or people using generators in indoor areas, and several other potentially harmful actions, the media is awash with complaints about unsafe conditions in industrial settings. Many employers choose profitability and speed over the lives and limbs of their employees.

In the midst of a preponderance of “regulatory agencies”, a considerable number of Nigerians are subjected to unsafe working conditions. For the organisations they work for, safety consciousness is a burden they are better off without, since the system is skewed against their workers. This creates a situation where life-saving guidelines are ignored continually until disaster strikes. In the presence of weak enforcement of workers’ rights, such disasters do not necessarily trigger a change of heart.

Largely, multinationals and other large companies with names to protect, tend to take safety issues more seriously, especially, concerning their own employees. However, many of these organisations outsource some jobs to other companies, and sometimes, do not hold those contractors to appropriate safety standards. Thus, while Company X enforces a safety policy for its direct employees, it may conveniently ignore the fact that Company Y, a contractor, subjects its own employees to unsafe working conditions.

For some of these companies, safety policies are written on paper just to keep appearances. In reality, safety issues are considered inconsequential. The management cadre does not cascade safety policies to the lower levels, because they lack belief in those policies. Such organisations run a hypocritical structure— well written safety guideline alongside a culture of impunity concerning safety issues. At the end of the road, the employee suffers. The employee may lose body parts or even the right to life, while the bosses keep smiling to the banks, ready to keep regulators at bay via bribes.

Without effective regulatory agencies, safety will never be prioritized in Nigeria. No matter how much preaching is done, businesspeople are profit-minded; ethical concerns are secondary or even lower than that. Enforcement of safety standards by professionals and government stakeholders, combined with an anonymous, incentivized reporting system for employees to report erring employers will make the work place safer for all. When employers see that the tide has changed, they will realize that it is in their best interest to enforce a culture of safety consciousness. Only then, will we see the finish line in the pursuit of safety.

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