May 21, 2015

The Philippines - Safety and culture

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A fire in a factory in Valenzuela in Metro Manila that killed 72 workers has been blamed mainly on management not following safety regulations, including the lack of fire exits and fire extinguishers and the unsafe storage of chemicals.

According to a welder hired to repair a door, he had asked a factory secretary if there were combustible materials near the place where he was about to work. He was told there was none but when he began his welding, the sparks apparently ignited a chemical in sacks.

While investigations are ongoing, we should go a step further and look at the larger problem of safety awareness in the country. Accidents happen all the time without our even understanding how they are linked to our carelessness… or ignorance.

For example, the chemical in those sacks was azodicarbonamide, which is used as a blowing agent to expand rubber. Besides its flammable nature, the chemical has been identified as a possible cause of asthma. In Britain, it requires a label “May cause sensitisation by inhalation.” It is also banned in a number of countries from being used in the manufacture of plastic articles that might come in direct contact with food.

Beyond our low scientific literacy, there’s also an underlying cultural aspect to our lack of safety precautions. We need to build a culture of safety where we are constantly aware of possible risks, and do things to minimise those risks.

Instead, our default thinking is “OK lang” or “OK na,” (it's fine) accepting risks as inevitable, and taking precautions only if the danger is visible and imminent.

As for culture in terms of practices, it is amazing how many of our housekeeping “traditions” at home and in offices constantly make us risk life and limb.


Let’s look at the “doing” aspect by studying the problem of falls among the elderly, which happen very often and can be extremely debilitating, even fatal.

Check your homes and offices and you’ll probably find all kinds of hazards that can cause falls. There are stairs that are just too steep, or steps that are too narrow. There’s the bathroom with floors that are always wet.

Here’s the cultural part. In the Philippines we have the habit of cleaning a bathroom by dousing the floor, sink and commode with water and then letting these dry on their own rather than using a mop.

Instead of mops we seem to prefer rag rugs, the types sold by sidewalk and street vendors. You’ll see this at the entrances to the house and the bathroom, and in front of the kitchen sink.

Just last week while waiting for a take-out order in a restaurant, I noticed both a rug and rags placed right at the entrance. For about 10 minutes I watched with amazement, and a bit of horror, at an awkward choreography. Most customers who walked in would wipe their shoes on the rug, which would move whenever the wiping happened. Then the customers would spot the rags. Some avoided the rags while others used a foot to move these aside, irritation at the inconvenience showing on their faces. Meanwhile, food servers would pass by, each time using their feet to move the rags back to the centre, some of them moving the rags forward and backward to clean the floor.

I finally had to tell the manager that they were inviting accidents, that sooner or later, someone would slip on those rags.

It can happen as well in your homes. If you insist on having some kind of rug, use rubber ones. Add railings around the house, especially in bathrooms and stairways, for people to hold on to.

Just to scare you into action, if Lolo or Lola slips on one of those rugs and gets a hip fracture, the surgery will set you back by at least 100,000 pesos (US$2,200). And that’s the least of your problems because hip fractures often result in complications that can be fatal.


A second example of culture and safety is the way we store chemicals. The Valenzuela fire is an extreme example of what can happen but again, look at your homes or offices and you’ll find other invitations to disaster.

Many households still keep kerosene to use in lamps. And where’s the kerosene to be found? In kitchens. And what does kerosene look like? Cooking oil.

Then there are the insecticides. Where do you keep them? In the bedroom. Check what you keep next to the sprays.

We invite poisoning when we put poisonous substances next to food, but it happens all the time. Just ask the emergency wards of hospitals, and the poisoning control centre at the Philippine General Hospital.

All this is cultural in the sense that we’ve grown used to just putting chemicals anywhere. In part this is because the government does not have strong labeling rules. Remember the poisoning of the owner and a customer in a milk tea shop? The poison has been identified as oxalic acid, which is also used as a cleaner. You can buy little plastic bags of the substance, which looks like sugar, on the sidewalk.

A skull-and-crossbones sign and “Lason” (Poison) in large lettering should be required on the bags to remind people to take precautions.

Now even if we do have those labels, I suspect we will still be cavalier about it all, and this is where the attitudinal part of culture comes in. Because we are so surrounded by risks, we tend to shrug them off.

Food poisoning

An example is the way we invite food poisoning and diarrheal diseases, especially during summer. Food spoils much more quickly during the very hot months. And while food spoils quickly in the heat, we shouldn’t forget that it doesn’t stay safe forever in the fridge. If your food has been out in the heat for some time, putting it in the fridge is not going to kill the harmful bacteria. Spoiled is spoiled.

Schools and the streets in front of them are frequent sites for food poisoning, and that’s not just from foods that spoil in the heat but also drinks that use unsafe water and ice. For both food and drinks, there’s the constant threat of contamination from vendors’ and food handlers’ hands. There are food safety laws requiring them to use gloves and hair nets, but the laws are observed more in the breach.

We underestimate the harm that can occur. Diarrhoeas can kill, especially when they affect the very young and the elderly. Among the poor, diarrhoeas are so chronic that they cause malnutrition, both underweight and stunting.

We need to make safety consciousness part of our homes and our schools. I have just returned from a visit to the National University of Singapore, where buffet and snack tables always carried a sign that gave the time the food was prepared and when it has to be consumed (four hours after preparation).

Start the children young with a culture of safety. Get them involved in rearranging furniture that the youngest child might bump into. Or get them to draw skulls and crossbones on gummed labels, which you can then put on insecticides and other poisonous substances. (Adults should be the one to put those labels.)

It won’t be easy. Even hospitals have to issue frequent reminders to physicians and nurses about proper hand-washing. But we have to keep pushing for this culture of safety. Add the lack of concern on the part of some employers—“these are just workers”—to their lack of a safety culture, and we have a formula for more disasters.

Michael L. Tan

Philippine Daily Inquirer

Business & Investment Opportunities 

Saigon Business Corporation Pte Ltd (SBC) is incorporated in Singapore since 1994. 

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