“There is an issue on the Occupational Safety and Health Bill” – Alhaja Nofisat Arogundade, Pioneer Director of OSH, Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment

Alhaja Nofisat Arogundade recently retired from the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment after 35 years of meritorious service. While in service, she championed many initiatives to promote Occupational Safety and Health in Nigeria. In this interview with Safety Record Newspaper’s John Ogunsemore, she spoke about her life, career and the state of OSH in Nigeria. Excerpt.

How was growing up like?

To God be the glory. I am Nofisat Abiola Arogundade. My childhood started in the late 50s. I was born into the Elewe family of Brazilian quarters in Lagos. My parents were Alhaji and Alhaja Ottun. I am from a middle-class family. I had the opportunity of starting my primary school at St. Andrews Anglican Primary School, Oke-popo. I had a very exciting childhood. I remember that whenever we had to get our result my mother or somebody elderly had to accompany me because some people bullied me for usually coming first in class. It was an exciting time when I had double promotion. With that, I was able to spend fewer years in primary school. It was during my time that the educational system was changed from Standard to Primary system. I moved from Standard Four to Primary Six.

For my secondary school, I decided that I would love to go to a Muslim school, so I went to Ansar-Ud-Deen Girls High School, Apapa. In 1973, the school moved to Itire, now its permanent site. I love science. I was a science student. I went for higher studies at Jubril Martins Memorial Grammar School, Iponri, where I did my A’Level in Science in 1977. I proceeded to University of Ibadan where I was given admission to read Chemistry. I finished my degree programme in 1980 and went for youth service in Oyo state – Oluponna Community High School, Iwo, which is now in present-day Osun state.

Journey into the civil service

It was so good in that period. When I was in the university we did a job interview and we were able to pick our choice. I had an uncle – Mr. Yekeen Kola Elewe, now of blessed memory, who advised me to go into the Federal Civil Service. I also had an opportunity with the Lagos State Civil Service but my uncle encouraged me to go into the Federal Civil Service as a Lagosian. I got the job. The letter was dated 3th August, 1981 but I resumed on 7th August, 1981. Though I didn’t know what it meant to be an Inspector of Factories but with the induction I knew it was something I had passion for. I started work on 7th August, 1981, a Friday, as Inspector of Factories Grade II, which is Grade Level 8 in the Federal Civil Service structure. I have no regrets.

Social and family life

My social life as a young person was not that bubbling because I loved keeping to myself. Most of my activities were within the Muslim Students’ Society. I thank God that I enjoyed my childhood which helped to prepare me for a good and God-fearing life. I love touching lives. In my family they call me ‘Iya eto’ which means ‘Organiser’. I love keeping the family ties, which they cherish me for. Luckily for me, I met my husband during my youth service year. That is why it has remained a memorable period of my life. God bestowed on me a compassionate man and one of the best husbands in the world. We got married in 1982. He was a medical doctor at the time. He is now Professor Rasheed Arogundade of the Department of Radiology, Lagos University Teaching Hospital. We have four biological children, but we are parents to many children. That always gives us joy. Now we are both grandparents.

After 35 years of service to fatherland, what was the experience like?

My experience’s fulfilling and rewarding though I had some challenges just like everyone else on the job. Even when there were no challenges one had to put some challenges so that you could improve your skill. During that period in the civil service, we did mass employment of graduates. After our induction, five of us reported to Factories Inspectorate of the Federal Ministry of Employment, Labour and Productivity as it was then called. I had the privilege of being the only young officer retained at the Factories Inspectorate Headquarters at 147 Broad Street (Lagos). That put so much stress on me but it was what really built me up for the future. Unfortunately, we had division among the ‘Ogas’ (bosses) and I had to serve all of them dutifully and faithfully. Right from Level 8, I had been taking work home because I had so much to do that I could never finish in the office. I had the opportunity of working with those who were trained by the colonial masters and excellence was their watchword. The work had to be done on time.

In 1985, one of them called me that it was necessary for me to move so that I could have field experience. I was enjoying working with them at the headquarters because I now had the opportunity of reading all the files, submission from all state offices which gave me insight into how the job was supposed to be (but) without growing my skill. When I was posted to the Lagos office, I had the practical experience of all I had been reading on paper. Apart from those ones I had during induction course when I learnt to carry out inspections, my first visit to a factory made me excited as I saw the production process, machines. Being a Factory Inspector, your ultimate aim is to save lives of workers. And as one of my bosses constantly said, they have come to earn their living, not to earn death or injury. Workers as human resources are the most vital resources to any productive nation.

I had some difficult periods because I have a competitive mind. As I always want to be the best in every undertaking, whenever a file was minuted to me to go on inspection, I would run to our headquarters to check two big books (Encyclopedia of Occupational Safety and Health made by International Labour Organisation). I didn’t know about the internet then. Even now, I encourage those younger officers I mentor to always search about the hazards peculiar to any particular industry so as to know what to look for when going on inspection. Whenever I had to inspect a factory in a sector where I have no knowledge, I would prepare myself for any task by asking questions like: What are the types of hazards in that industry? What are the types of equipment? How is the workplace supposed to be? What are the precautions expected? I always love preparing myself for any task.

There was a day I went to a big factory, a multinational. When I got there, I met the safety manager who said he had worked for Health and Safety Executive, UK, and belonged to so many safety-related associations. I just told him, ‘Yes sir, I have only come to do my job and I believe that every day we learn. Let me go round and see how you can improve my skill even here.’ As he had boasted, I made up my mind to open my eyes well, learn and maybe also teach him a lesson as well. And that period we had just been trained on inspection safety (of) boilers, pressure vessels in general and lifting equipment. I felt really challenged, but I was able to pick some contraventions. The man couldn’t believe it. He jumped on his staff (saying), ‘I gave you this instruction, I asked you to do it this way and you didn’t listen. You will be sacked.’ But I told him, ‘Sir, my job here is to protect lives and protect jobs. I have not come for them to be sacked. You can just improve on your supervision. You can put in safety procedure for them to know it; not just instruction by word of mouth. Do tool box talk in the morning. Remind them what their responsibilities are.’

He calmed down and I said the visit was not meant for witch-hunting or for anyone to lose their job. I told him that my purpose of saving lives would be defeated if they lost their jobs. We became friends and the man respected me more. Though I looked small, I was already 13 years on the job then.

Challenges on the job

I had an investigation of accident. There was an accident in which a container exploded and up till today we could not trace the content of the container. Does that mean our labs are not really working? We took samples to FEPA (Federal Environmental Protection Agency) lab for analysts to test. The missile was thrown some metres away and life was lost. By the time it had exploded, no one was coming forward to claim it. It happened at the Apapa port. We wanted to know the properties of the chemical and what could have triggered the explosion. But it remained a mystery up till today.

Another frustrating part of the experience I had on my job, investigation of accident, was that the Factories Act we have now is over-descriptive. Because the legislation is limited, obsolete, the accident that occurred, the missiles involved, could not be placed under any section of the Act for us to be able to prosecute the company. That is why in the proposed Occupational Safety and Health bill I am proposing that we make it general like we have in the developed countries, making it an obligation on the employer, factory owner, premises owner, enterprises owner, to ensure that the workplace is safe and healthy. When we make it a binding duty that the workplace is safe, it will place responsible on the employer. We will now need regulations and standards to meet specific areas.

I learnt at an international training that the more descriptive the legislation, the more difficult it is to enforce. It will be better to use regulations, standards, codes of practice, and so on, to make sure that you now address specific areas.

Another challenge came when I spent 12 years as a Deputy Director. That was when I was also state controller. Though I stagnated in my career, that period gave me the opportunity to delve into other mandates of the Labour Ministry, including Industrial Relations. I met people that matter (and) worked closely with trade associations – NUC, TUC. I had a fulfilling career.

Greatest achievement as a civil servant

That would be when I got the International Labour Organisation to partner with us and then drive the first national profile on Occupational Safety and Health for Nigeria. But it was one of the achievements that I feel proud of. My greatest achievement would have been getting an Occupational Safety and Health Bill that would be modern, relevant and viable in the new world of work, passed. Also, I compiled the checklist on Occupational Safety and Health inspection but that is not what I would have loved because the world has shifted now to risk assessment. Since we have not been able to have the infrastructure and train the OSH staff properly on risk assessment, we felt that we should still have the guide that can guide them. I personally foot the bill to print the checklist on inspection for Occupational Safety and Health. That one I bequeathed as a parting gift even though I could not get the necessary financial support to print as many as possible. At least I was able to print some as a legacy to guide the Factory Inspectors on how to carry out effective inspection which is very key in safety management.

What’s your thought on the Occupational Safety and Health Bill currently before the National Assembly?

There is an issue on that bill, although I don’t know if it has been straightened out after I left the ministry. I know that we have an Executive bill that was sent earlier on which has become obsolete. It will be crucial that they look at the bill critically before passing it at this period because the bill that has been before the National Assembly since 2005 has become obsolete and, just as we constantly remind ourselves, the world of work is rapidly changing every day. We have to look at the wordings again. Along the line, we learnt that there was a mix up: a private bill was sponsored by one of the senators, which was close to being passed at the close of the Seventh Assembly. Now, another one was being circulated to have been sponsored by another senator. So, there is need to come together; the executive should make sure that whatever is going to be passed now after the long delay should be a credible and effective law that will be easy for compliance and enforcement. We should make sure that the law is not limited in scope as we had. With the ratification of Convention 155 by the Government of Nigeria, we have accepted that we have regulation on safety and health that will cover all branches of economic activity. That was what was presented by the executive earlier on. I believe that it should be what we will still have at the National Assembly.

How to entrench Occupational Safety and Health in Nigeria

We should ensure that the infrastructures for the enforcement of the law are put in place. As at now, we have so many deficits in infrastructure for OSH in Nigeria. If I have to be specific, the infrastructure should cover Knowledge, by which I mean education, making people know about safety and health as early as possible in their lives. We should make sure we integrate it into our TVET – Technical and Vocational Education Training. We need research and survey. There should be proper funding of research. Not every standard that’s used in the UK or US would be easily adoptable in Nigeria and be okay for our own situation. There is little or nothing on research in safety and health in Nigeria. The first infrastructure we need to tackle is on knowledge building. Creating public awareness is part of it.

The second infrastructure is Regulation. We have to have enforceable regulations which will provide for compliance. Policy is one key component of this. The National Policy on Occupational Safety and Health is supposed to be reviewed every three years. We tried as much as possible but there was no proper funding to continue. We hope that it is given attention now. We have fragmentation regulatory efforts and enforcement. This ministry is doing a bit, various MDAs (Ministries, Departments and Agencies) doing their own, leading to overlapping functions. If there is proper coordination, which is part of what the regulation should address, and we have an OSH agency as is being proposed in the bill currently before the National Assembly, it will be better. Much is being done concerning OSH in Nigeria but they are just drops that are not being pooled. If we able to pool the drops, I think we can make a big drum out of it. There should be a way of harmonising the functions of the various MDAs that are involved in safety and health in Nigeria.

Another aspect of the infrastructure is Dialogue. I know the proposed Occupational Safety and Health Act makes provisions for an OSH council. Of all the mandates of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, only the safety and health at work is listed under the exclusive and concurrent lists of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Being under both lists, the State Assembly can also legislate on safety and health. That is why we have Lagos state blazing the trail with the Lagos State Safety Commission. There is need for coordination. The National Council on Occupational Safety and Health will now be a forum for the state governments, Federal Government and all agencies that are involved in safety and health. It will be a tripartite body. Even now there is talk of tripartite plus. When they come together, they can help formulate policy, advise government on formulation of policy or improvement of legislation, and formulate standards on Occupational Safety and Health. That is the power of dialogue. Dialogue is ensuring that tripartism plus works at the national level. At the enterprises level, there will be bipartism – employer and employee discussing, making safety and health a collective bargain issue. We can negotiate on safety and health issues. That’s important and it is a part of dialogue that needs to be strengthened.

The fourth aspect is Compensation. The compensation involves providing the necessary funds for the administration of Occupational Safety and Health, making sure we have enough funds for compensation such as the National Social Insurance Trust Fund. It should be all-inclusive. It should extend to the informal sector. I have suggested we explore the possibility of working with the local government. The national council can look at it: What are the ways we can involve the informal sector in terms of compensation in case of accident? How can they make their own contributions? Is it getting a daily percentage of the daily ticket they are buying from the local government? We can have a legislation that will enable us to have something like that. We can focus on street hawkers, those in the mechanic village and so on. Encourage them to key into compensation for Occupational Safety and Health. That is part of social security. One of the challenges facing Occupational Health and Safety is that it is not properly funded. We have inadequate financial and human resources.

Recognition by safety professionals

I am grateful that they recognised my effort. It has strengthened me to do more for humanity. I have retired from service but this is the time for me to pursue my hobbies, one of which is mentoring. I want to be able to mentor younger Occupational Safety and Health professionals in the country. I want to thank God for the friendships that I have formed both within and outside the Ministry of Labour. All my colleagues and other OSH professionals in the corporate world are part of that success story. When I first got the notice of the celebration, I was like, ‘Wow!’ It has bestowed on me more responsibility. That is why I am looking forward to what I can still contribute to OSH.

Post Author: David Chibueze