The Caswell Franklyn Column – Barbados Supreme Court Complex – A Death Trap – Enter at Your Own Peril
The relatively new Supreme Court Complex has now officially joined the growing list of government offices that are alleged to be making the occupants sick. Since its closure some commentators have mistakenly bandied about the term, “sick building syndrome” as the reason for the shutdown.
That syndrome is said to exists when the occupants of a building experience health challenges or discomfort that appear to be linked to time spent in that particular building, where the causes for the symptoms are unknown. Normally, there is no specific illness but the symptoms get worse the longer you stay in the building, and there is improvement on leaving.
The symptoms include but are not limited to: headaches; tiredness; blocked or runny noses; dry, itchy skin; dry, sore eyes; throat irritation; rashes; irritability; and difficulty concentrating.
Sick building syndrome is believed to be caused by a number of factors: poor air quality; dust; chemical and other fumes; smoke; fungi (funguses) among other things including the glare from computer screens.
From very early after the opening there had been a concern about poor air quality but more recently, a number of courtrooms have been close off and put out of use because of persistent fungi (mould) taking over those rooms. Rather than close off those rooms, the authorities should have realised that the building has a central air conditioning system that could transport the mould throughout the offices, and close the building much earlier. That mould created a clear and present danger that ought not to have been ignored.
I could understand staff continuing to work in that building if their symptoms were non specific and speculatively attributed to sick building syndrome. But I find it extremely difficult to understand why workers continued to occupy that building, when they knew that their symptoms were potentially life-threatening and directly attributable to the environmental conditions of their workplace.
Every employer has a legal duty to provide a safe place of work and a safe system of work. To my mind, the Government has failed in that duty. Even so, workers have a right, recognises by statute, to protect themselves from harm associated with their work. The Safety and Health at Work Act Act at section 104 states:
Where, during the course of his employment, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that an employee’s health and safety are in imminent danger, that employee may refuse to carry out the task assigned to him pending consultation with his safety committee, trade union or staff association or the Chief Labour Officer.
In light of section 104, I find it even more difficult to understand and accept that persons, who are said to possess some of the best legal minds in this country, could continue to occupy a mould-infested building for years, without a whimper. After the closure, we were greeted by stories, about a whole range of illnesses, from a number of prominent lawyers, whose work cause them to spend significant time in that environment. Maybe, their failure to speak out had nothing to do with their good legal minds but it might have everything to do with a lack of good old-fashioned guts.
Because of the closure of the building for cleaning and other remedial work, it is clear that the illnesses of employees at the Supreme Court Complex cannot be said to be as a result of some speculative sick building syndrome. It appears to me that these workers are suffering from what is termed, “building related illness”. As such, they would be eligible to claim compensation from the National Insurance Office for employment injury.
A worker who is successful in his/her claim for employment injury qualifies for a refund of expenses incurred in the treatment of that condition. I would therefore advise workers to make the application now that their conditions can be safely attributed to the poisonous atmosphere of their workplace.
Over the years, many people have complained that our judges were lazy, maybe, it is just that they were sick.
Recently, a marshal of the Supreme Court died in so far unexplained circumstances. It is only fair to his family that his death should be investigated to determine if he died as a result of his work environment.