№33 (761) 5 — 11 September 2009

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№ 33 (761) 5 — 11 September 2009

 

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Sergei Storchak

Sergei Storchak: «Our work may go unnoticed, but it supports public law and order»

by Ivan GONTA

Situation with mine safety conditions is still critical: on-the-job injury rate is exceedingly high. As before, 70% of all accidents and injuries are caused by “human factor”, i.e. violations of safety standards by mine management and labor. It suggests apprehension, whether Hr.100 million allocated by the government can help to get off the ground to improve mine safety? Our talk with Sergei STORCHAK, chairman of the Labor Safety Committee, is about how to make miner’s work safer and improve system of labor safety supervision.

— Any funds earmarked for mine safety are by no means excessive and will be generously repaid, if rationally spent. Generally, the problem with mine accidents can be effectively resolved only in case mine owners would actually be held liable for both personnel and production facilities, which means their strict compliance with mine safety standards.

Thus, we have become more confident in safe operation of Krasnoarmeiskaya-Zapadnaya mine, the biggest and extremely hazardous one, after its privatization by this kind of owners. As of now, labor safety management at mines’ level still remains our weak link.

Sergei Alexandrovich, you seem to hope for a miracle. Where can we get such a lot of conscious owners in our country?

But they do exist. Owners are elite resource of the country. New legislative framework should be instituted to motivate employers’ efforts in accident prevention.

Do you mean stricter punishment up to criminal liabilities?

No, why? This is not the right way to go for the country that has chosen European values. A lot more effective would be good economic motivation for employers to create safe working environment. So, on the one hand, safe mining should be economically beneficial for employers while, on the other hand, they should be financially liable for non-compliance with safety regulations in case of major accident.

Do you have any specific proposals on how to introduce such legislative mechanism?

— The Committee has initiated a number of modifications to legislative enactments on industrial safety. If adopted, there would be no further need to adjust safety laws for a long time, so that we can comply with European standards, EU guidelines and ILO convention.

Say, any owner whose property suffered a major accident due to violations of safety requirements, shall compensate costs for recovery operations instead of demanding finance from the government reserve fund, as is customary now. Besides, such owners shall compensate social security fund for payments to the victims.

I believe in effective economic incentive such as differential insurance premium to the said fund based on safety record, injury statistics and occupational disease rate at each production facility: the better safety status, the less premium. Now we propose sixfold raise in fines for violations of safety requirements to be enacted through addendum to the Code of Administrative Laws.

This proposal along with some other ones will help adjust partnership relations between the government and employers. Such legal framework for their economic liabilities would provide more effective improvement in mine safety than any sanctions or administrative pressure.

— Are your initiatives met with support?

— Yes, by employers above all. However, their implementation is slower than we wish. Thus, our bill on differential tariffs was withdrawn, because the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy brought in a bill on occupational injury prevention to the Verkhovna Rada. The latter bill leaves out all incentives for businesses to create appropriate working conditions, not addressing adjustment of differential tariff system (so much spoken about by top governmental officials for a number of years).

Now most typical approach is to focus and spend a lot of efforts and funds on “heroic” rescue and recovery operations following mine accidents instead of consistent prevention of root causes leading to such accidents. Most part of the budget allocated for these purposes is earmarked for emergencies and thus for development of the corresponding organizational structures. Still it would be a lot more reasonable and morally acceptable (remember rescuers who risk their lives) to first enhance system of accident prevention in our country. State safety supervisory service is part of this system. Moreover, industrial accidents are not limited by production facilities as they affect families of victims, communities and the whole country.

— In other words, you do not have enough funds?

It should be noted, that our budget for expenditure was cut by a third. You know, our agency can not shift to self-financing basis. International experience shows that any hryvnya invested into labor safety would be repaid with five hryvnyas through prevention of industrial catastrophies, preservation of workers’ health and good condition of basic assets.

It is not just a matter of inadequate finance. It has become almost a tradition to “reform” the Labor Safety Committee with each change of government: it could be closed down or become part of some ministry thus losing its authority. Every time when a major accident happened after such “reforming” our status was reestablished, but we had to rebuild our structure from scratch. In other parts of the world work of safety supervisory services does not depend on policy, forget biased representatives of any influential statesman.

Any changes in safety supervision system should be instilled after careful consideration and with full responsibility for lives and health of people. No doubt, safety supervision system in our country needs restructuring. Today almost all ministries have their own inspections whose staff may considerably exceed the scope of their useful work. Moreover, they assume no civil responsibilities and in many cases care for departmental interests rather than for public.

Do you want to get these other inspections under?

Certainly not. Every organization should address its own problems. Nevertheless our Committee, being the only agency in charge of labor safety issues, also deals with labor safety management, shaping general governmental policy in the sphere of industrial safety and labor protection. We believe that these numerous inspections should become more effective though coordination of their activities. That is why we propose to set up a corresponding coordinating board under the cabinet of ministers.

All these are prospects for the future. What is the Committee doing now to reduce accident rate at production facilities?

We have to act firmly while no economic tools are available to motivate employers. It means tough supervision over compliance with safety standards, especially at mines, including fines, laying-off or shutting down the operation until all violations are corrected.

Sometimes we have to resort to unusual measures, not practiced by our colleagues in other countries. Thus, intensified safety supervision was introduced at some mines, when our inspectors stayed there 24 hrs. a day; it helped considerably reduce injury rate in coal mining. Since May same method has been brought in gas supply system. In fact, we have assumed functions of departmental management including design, construction and use of gas pipelines, especially regional pipeline network

By the way, your agency seems too quiet about fighting corruption, a bureaucratic evil that is so much spoken about recently.

To be open with you, we have this problem, too. Of course, we are trying to eradicate corruption, but not in a showy fashion. We try to remedy its root causes. First, we address legal aspects of our work so that corruption component would be excluded from decision-making process as much as possible. As a result, the system of getting approvals from our Committee has been recognized as most transparent of all executive agencies. Secondly, we try to create decent working conditions for our inspectors, who are the backbone of the supervision system.

There is also other side of the coin. It is critical to protect inspector not only materially/financially, but literally physically. We often have to work under great pressure brought by those who still believe they can dictate their terms to the Committee and intimidate our inspectors.

Besides, we give guidance to our inspectors. We made an appeal to the inspectors about incompatibility of our mission and responsibility with any actions against conscience and law.

We feel that our principled stand contributed to more than threefold reduction in work injury rate and 35% reduction in fatality rate during the past decade.

Still your staff may bear some responsibility for each accident…

— We never lay aside responsibility for inadequate level of industrial safety in our country. So we are seeking for means to improve our system of safety supervision and labor protection. Thus, we are setting up specialized inter-regional inspections that will provide efficient supervision in such potentially hazardous industries as oil and gas production, transport, conservation of mineral resources, chemistry.

We give a lot of consideration to scientific and technical support of safety supervisory bodies and try to improve efficiency of the National R&D Institute for Labor Safety, that is part of the Committee’s structure.

Our work may go unnoticed, but it literally supports public law and order. Let me assure you, that we have both strength and knowledge how to raise industrial safety to the level of international standards.

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