Chief Innocent Okunamiri
Chief Innocent Okunamiri

Chief Innocent Friday Okunamiri is a former President and current Governing Board member of Institute of Safety Professionals (ISPON). In this interview, he addresses some of the challenges facing the HSE industry in Nigeria, especially the non-passage of the Occupational Safety and Health bill by the National Assembly. Excerpt…

Can you tell us about yourself?

My name is Friday Okunamiri. I am a member of the Governing Board of the Institute of Safety Professionals of Nigeria (ISPON). I am a former president of ISPON, and first registrar.  I also happened to be the second secretary to the institute. I served in that capacity for nine years. It was under me that most of these bills were flying all over. We came up with ISPON which later materialised and we are happy to have the charter in 2014.

For someone who has this huge portfolio in the occupational health and safety industry in Nigeria, can you briefly tell us about HSE in Nigeria, how it started in your days and what we have presently?

All of us – most individuals and companies – started under the umbrella of the National Industrial Safety Council of Nigeria (NISCN). It turned out to be a tripartite body set up by the Federal Government to prevent industrial accidents and to promote occupational health and welfare in workplaces. It was at one of the conferences of the Industrial Safety Council of Nigeria held in Lagos that an idea to set up a technical committee or professional committee of this council was mooted. One of the conferences held in 1980 where this technical committee was then called the Nigerian Society of Safety Professionals. As a technical committee of the National Industrial Safety Council of Nigeria, the committee was to write out papers, training, safety, and health.

Can you compare what it used to be in those days to what we have now?

In those days we had people who were committed without financial benefits, who demonstrated that they wanted to do something. They settled down to find out the real problem and how to solve those problems. It is not to be compared with now.

ISPON is the statutory body with the authority to regulate safety management in Nigeria but some other bodies seem to be cropping up and are assuming this role. So, what relationship does the institute have with these other bodies?

Some other bodies have liaised with us to ensure that safety is carried out successfully. It is left for those smaller bodies that are springing up, they should approach us if they think what they are doing is right. They should approach and not spring up anyhow they like.

So, what relationship does ISPON have with those bodies?

Those bodies are not registered with ISPON. ISPON must recognise those bodies. There are procedures for doing things.  If those bodies want to work for this country in that area, I think that the normal thing to do, just like some corporate bodies have done, is to become a corporate member of the institute. But those bodies I don’t know them. It is when they present themselves and tell us what they want to achieve and then they tell us their areas and so we see where we can support them.

The occupational health and safety bill has been at the National Assembly for a long time. I wouldn’t want to ask what is keeping it there, although I am interested in knowing, but what is the implication of this bill to Nigeria?

Luckily, I was one of the committee members that carried out the review. The review started in 2004 and was submitted. That bill was to replace the Factories Act 1990. The bill also tried to bring in some other things that were not mentioned in the Factories Act. Hence, it served as an umbrella body that covered both mining, agriculture, factories, and that is why we said it is the Occupational Health and Safety bill, instead of Factories Act. It was submitted in February 2005 to the executive – that is the Federal Ministry of Labour. It was for them to send to the National Assembly, which was done. It has been in that National Assembly through every government.

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Luckily that aspect of the other one Workmen Compensation Act came in as Employee Compensation Act by Jonathan administration. It is now called Employee Compensation Act (ECA) 2010. But the other one, occupational health and safety bill, I don’t know what is happening. We just need the government to get this work done. In Nigeria, we run a government that does not continue. Otherwise, it would have been from government to government given the stages of work done on it. But if that government does not deal finally with that bill, another government takes over, the other government leaves it. This is what I observed even with our own ISPON Act. It’s unfortunate but then the truth is that it is still with the National Assembly.

What is the implication? What is it telling on the nation? What are we losing, if there is anything at all, by not having this bill passed?

We are losing a lot and it is costing the nation a lot of money. Lives are lost; properties are lost; environment polluted. Most companies have bad image. This is a company that once you have employed people, you kill people because you don’t follow safety procedures.

Can’t the ISPON Act take the position that the OHS bill is meant to assume?

It is not possible. The ISPON Act is just for safety professionals. This one goes beyond just safety professionals. It moves into other professions, environment and what you should provide in factories and what standards you are expected to keep.

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