On April 17, two workers died inside a manhole in front of the Angsana Mall Shopping Centre, in Jalan Hospital, Ipoh. It is alleged that one worker descended into the hole to retrieve his equipment, and fell unconscious because of a lack of oxygen. When his partner saw that he had fallen down the hole, he quickly descended into the manhole, in an attempt to rescue his friend, but he too, fell unconscious. It was a tragedy that was entirely preventable.

Did these young men die because they were careless and failed to adhere to health and safety rules? Or did the company not have health and safety guidelines for working in confined spaces?

Poisonous gas can be odourless, colourless and in most cases, invisible. In the oil and gas industry, workers who have to clean up storage tanks, enter confined spaces, or work in an area which may be filled with gas, have to be properly suited with breathing apparatus and other protective equipment, to ensure that they do not inhale noxious fumes or suffer the effects of gas poisoning.

The same health and safety precautions are also observed outside of oil and gas, by those who work in the sewers, sewage treatment facilities, septic tanks, water works, sanitation industries, or farms with manure storage tanks.

Any company which carries out work in these fields, must have proper safety procedures for its staff. Failure to follow the rules, will result in serious injury, and in some cases, death.

It is not good enough to have a manual sitting in the room of the operations manager, or the site supervisor. Have the workers been adequately trained for working in confined spaces? Has the company a safety plan for working in such areas?

It was reported that one of the victims, 27-year-old Mohamad Nur Syafiq Mohamad Naser, from Taiping, was working part-time for the company, and had been called out because of a staff shortage.

As he was only a part-time worker, had he been trained? Or was training restricted to full time workers? This is something which Mohamad Nur Syafiq’s family will have to find out, from the company.

Investigators, who have to lodge an official report with the department which handles accidents at work, must identify whether the company had been negligent, or the workers had been lax.

The investigators will have to ascertain if the company had identified and posted the possible confined space hazards, how to test for dangerous levels of gas, how to don breathing apparatus and protective gear, confidently use the gas monitors, as well as be given detailed instructions on what to do if one worker passes out and has to be rescued. In addition, the investigators must also find out if there is a refresher programme for the supervisors and long-term staff at the firm.

In Malaysia, we take health and safety at work for granted. It is not our problem. People tend to switch-off at the mention of health and safety. They lose interest and only become concerned when a loved one has died, or their company is being scrutinised.

It happens in our everyday lives, even in the most mundane circumstances. When a pavement is being repaired, there must be adequate signs to warn pedestrians of potential trip hazards, or that workmen are in the area.

If scaffolding has been erected on a building for remedial work, do the contractors build a covered walkway so that pedestrians can walk along the pavement safely, without risk of tools or debris falling on their heads? Is there netting around the scaffolding to ensure that loose items do not fall onto passing vehicles or people?

If the construction area is beside a road, has the nearest lane to the site, been blocked off, to protect the vehicles which drive past?

Do you recall the tragedies in other parts of Malaysia, involving cranes or metal parts which fell from a crane, onto cars and crushed its occupants? Were the safety procedures of securing the crane properly adhered to, or had shoddy equipment been used, which subsequently failed and caused the accident? Did the supervisor, or site manager, ensure strict adherence to the rules?

When will Malaysians change their mindset about safety at work? It is the same with Malaysians and hygiene. They patronise dirty restaurants because the food is good and cheap.

They ignore the dirt and the unsafe practices, like workers failing to wash their hands after going to the toilet, workers washing vegetables and dirty dishes near the toilets and workers cooking and handling food, even if they have a cut or diarrhoea.

Malaysians only act once they have fallen ill. Likewise, we only seem to consider health and safety at work, once someone has been seriously injured, or has died. Will our mindset ever change? Or will it take several more deaths to make us come to our senses?