Probe ammonia-related incidents, penalize violators

The Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD) calls on the Labor Department to immediately release results of previous Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) inspections into workplaces involved in three recent ammonia-related incidents, conduct strict investigation into the incidents, and penalize the violators based on the provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Law.

The incidents are further proof that regular workplace inspection should not have been discontinued despite the pandemic, as essential industries continue to operate. Workers not only risk getting infected by Covid-19, but also risk being injured, sick or even killed due to uncorrected hazards in workplaces.

Wear and tear in the ammonia storage tank in Navotas or the pipes in Malabon, and the improper disposal of ammonia in Batangas, as shown by the preliminary investigations, could have been avoided had there been strict employer compliance with and strict government implementation of guidelines on these matters.

In just two days, the country has witnessed three separate ammonia-related incidents near residential areas that resulted in the evacuation, injuries and death of workers and their families.

– 3,000 families were displaced, 96 people were hospitalized, and two workers died from the T.P Marcelo Ice Plant and Cold Storage tank explosion in Navotas.

– The Environmental Management Board or EMB cried foul as plants withered and fish died from Pantoja Ice Plant’s ammonia leak and dumping of ammonia into rainwater canals in Batangas.

– Residents complained as a strong, foul odor escaped from the Ice and Water Shop Tube Ice Maker ammonia pipe leak in Malabon.

Ammonia is a burn-inducing, moisture-absorbing, flammable and explosive chemical used as pesticide or refrigerant in ice plants. In small amounts, it can cause headaches, loss of sense of smell, nausea, and vomiting but in significant amounts (more than 50 parts per million), it can cause irritation to the nose, mouth and throat. It can even be fatal in concentrations as high as 300-500 parts per million.

As a hazardous chemical, ammonia’s use is guided by OSH Standards. Its waste management is covered by Republic Act 6969 or the “Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act” and its IRR, namely Department of Environment and Natural Resources Administrative Order No. 29-92.

The said rules state that tanks for anhydrous ammonia must be distant from other buildings, fire hazards and traffic, must be protected against solar heat and mechanical damage, and must not be more than 4/5 full.

The waste generator is considered responsible for the proper management and disposal of ammonia. He or she shall submit to the DENR contingency plans to mitigate and combat spills and accidents involving the chemical. The DENR will then evaluate these plans according to its guidelines. He or she shall also train personnel on the implementation of the said plan, as well as the hazards posed by improper management of the chemical substance. The employers’ accountability should also be investigated.

In addition, according to Republic Act 11058: An Act Strengthening Compliance with OSH Standards and Providing Penalties for Violations Thereof, all workplaces should be subjected to annual spot labor inspections. A daily fine of not more than PhP 100,000 shall then be imposed for willful failure or refusal until full compliance is met.

The incidents show that imposing fines is not enough to prevent work-related accidents from happening. Amidst these tragedies that claim workers’ lives, endanger the public and destroy the environment, workers advocates are calling for the criminalization of OSH standards violations. Money will never suffice to pay for lives lost because of preventable incidents.

It is unacceptable to lose lives over incidents that are preventable. It is even more enraging to see non-compliance tolerated by the law. The government should not wait for another tragedy as large as the Kentex factory fire in order to realize that stronger policies for worker protection should be implemented.

Workers’ health and safety cannot take a back seat in supporting the economy. A healthy and protected work force will boost productivity and keep industries running. As long as the government continues to neglect occupational health and safety, workers’ lives and the environment will continue to be at risk because of non-compliant corporations.

References:

  1. Cabico, GK (2021). Ice plant must shoulder victims’ hospitalization over ammonia leak — Navotas mayor retrieved Feb 5, 2021 from https://www.philstar.com/nation/2021/02/04/2075306/ice-plant-must-shoulder-victims-hospitalization-over-ammonia-leak-navotas-mayor
  2. Ganzon-Ozaeta, T. (2021). Environment Bureau investigates ammonia leak in Batangas ice plant. Retreieved February 5, 2021 from https://www.rappler.com/nation/environment-bureau-investigates-ammonia-leak-batangas-ice-plant
  3.  Balagtas, C. (2021) Another ammonia leak incident reported in Malabon. Retrieved Feb 5, 2021 from https://tribune.net.ph/index.php/2021/02/05/another-ammonia-leak-incident-reported-in-malabon/
  4. US Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 (2015). Accident Prevention and Response Manual for Anhydrous Ammonia Refrigeration System Operators. Retrieved February 5, 2021 from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-05/documents/accident_prevention_ammonia_refrigeration_5-20-15.pdf
  5. Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety  (2017).  OSH Answers Fact Sheet: Ammonia. Retrieved February 5, 2021 from https://www.ccohs.ca//oshanswers/chemicals/chem_profiles/ammonia.html
  6. Occupational Safety and Health Standards as amended
  7. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Administrative Order 29-92: Implementing Rules and Regulations of Republic Act 6969
  8. Department of Labor and Employment Department Order 198: Implementing Rules and Regulations of Republic Act 11058
  9. Garcia, M. (2021). Ammonia leak incident leaves some Navotas folk traumatized. Retrieved February 5, 2021 from https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/metro/774669/ammmonia-leak-incident-leaves-some-navotas-folk-traumatized/story/

PhilHealth hike deferment, caused by widespread opposition

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the deferment of the scheduled 3% hike in PhilHealth members’ contribution because of the widespread opposition of Filipino workers and the public. The Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development (IOHSAD) credits the Filipino workers and people’s opposition, not this government’s supposed concern, for this action.

Workers and most Filipinos know that any rate increase is unacceptable during the present health and economic crises. Many migrant workers were laid off from work and are now at home, jobless. Many workers were also retrenched, while many workers who were retained face  wage cuts and work reduction. Those who go to work do so facing huge risks to their health and very lives.

More than 3.8 million Filipinos are unemployed. The prices of basic goods and services have increased with an inflation rate at 3.5%. The country is mired in debt: we will be paying for PhP 11.98 trillion in debt with 58.1% of the Gross Domestic Product this year, and preparing for the PhP 13.7 trillion of debt consuming 59.9% of the GDP in 2022.

PhilHealth does not deserve any increase in members’ contributions.
(1) PhilHealth members were almost left to fend for ourselves when financial assistance and social protection were insufficient during the lockdowns and continued company shutdowns.
(2) It did not lessen health care costs as out-of-pocket spending still covers nearly half of the country’s health expenditure.
(3) Despite receiving 25% of the PhP 278.5 billion health budget, it did not safeguard our contributions as its officials illegally released funds during the pandemic, misused its operating budget to pay off taxes using said funds, window-dressed their financial statements, and bloated their budget proposals for excess funding.
(4) Ultimately, it destroyed our trust as soon as its officials were exposed to have pocketed around PhP 15 billion. An increase in members’ contributions further removes the responsibility of health care provision from the government and transfers the burden to the already-vulnerable. Health is a right and should be a top priority of the government, especially during this pandemic. While the World Health Organization or WHO does not identify an absolute percentage of public spending needed to achieve health for all, it did recognize the significance of financial protection and service coverage.

The government should put the health of its workers and people first, relieving us of the burden to finance our health and ensuring access to quality health care anywhere in the country. Workers and Filipinos need a tax-funded health insurance with a well-connected health care system, not a privatization safety net scheme like PhilHealth.