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Drive for legal timber boosts worker safety in Ghana

“They have started requiring us to report every accident that occurs, no matter how small it may appear,” says Richard Aryeh, of his employers at Ejura Timbers in Ghana’s Ashanti Region, where he operates a powerful mechanised saw that cuts planks from huge pieces of timber. “They have provided us with some safety materials to work with and it has helped us to work well. It has also reduced injury cases.”

Across Ghana, workers who cut down trees in forests, move timber from the forest to factories or process wood into finished goods can expect these and other improvements in the coming months. That’s because, as Ghana implements new systems for ensuring the legality of its timber and timber products, a spotlight is shining on worker safety like never before. 

Training is now spreading across the country. It is being driven by the government’s push to ensure its timber products have been harvested, transported, processed and traded legally, and by Ghanaian civil society’s insistence that ensuring worker safety is a key aspect of complying with the law. These visions have come together in a Voluntary Partnership Agreement between Ghana and the EU, under which timber products will not be considered legal unless companies protect their employees.

Factory employee in a big company operating a machine slicing wood

Factory employee in a big company operating a machine slicing wood

Source: Capture Ghana, EU FLEGT Facility

Factory employee in a big company operating a machine slicing wood

Source: Capture Ghana, EU FLEGT Facility

Richard Gyimah, the Verification and Field Audit Manager at the Forestry Commission’s Timber Validation Department, says awareness of occupational hazards continues to grow and there has been a big improvement over the past decade. He says many of the larger companies that harvest and process timber in Ghana have already implemented health and safety requirements to meet standards set by private schemes that provide certification of sustainability.  

But while Ghana’s bigger companies have made progress, most of its 150-200 smaller ones have lagged behind. The challenges include absent or poor-quality safety equipment and limited training on risk reduction. That is now changing thanks to Ghanaian government agencies and civil society groups that are making these smaller companies aware of their legal requirements and training staff to use equipment safely.

One group that has been working to build the capacity of smaller companies to comply with requirements of the Voluntary Partnership Agreement is the Nature and Development Foundation (NDF). “Before we met the NDF, we were quite negligent about safety issues,” says Ebenezer Robertson, General Supervisor at Emmanro Wood Processing Ltd. “You [would] come to the company and see employees just working, without having on their safety equipment, which is very harmful. When we met the NDF, we realised the health of the workers should really be our concern. That we need to provide them with the necessary equipment.”

Ghana timber operations

Source: Ghana Capture, EU FLEGT Facility

Ghana timber operations

Source: Ghana Capture, EU FLEGT Facility

Despite the efforts underway, some companies are still permitting unsafe practices, as when they allow workers to operate wood-cutting machines with bare hands instead of ensuring they wear protective gloves. It is possible to find grinding machines lacking protective shields, and chainsaw operators and factory staff working without goggles or ear-protectors, helmets or high-visibility reflective jackets. “Logs are falling on people because of poor communication or poor visibility or sheer negligence,” says Glen Asomaning of the NDF. 

One challenge is Ghana’s heat and humidity, which can dissuade workers in both forests and factories from wearing gloves, boots, helmets and facemasks. Aryeh, at Ejura Timbers, says he feels very uncomfortable wearing wellington boots as they trap heat. He adds that while the boots offer some protection against injury, they are heavy, so wearing them is tiring, and they lack the grip he needs when he needs to climb on a log to inspect it. “I wish they would give me proper safety boots.”

The Supervising Manager of Ejura Timbers, Isaac Appiah, acknowledges such complaints and says the company aims to change the type of boots it issues to workers by early 2019. “Since NDF came with the support and training, we have been able to put our house in order in terms of filing of documents, workers’ safety and in keeping the environment neat,” he says. “If you think safety is expensive, try accident — we acknowledge preservation is always better than cure.”

Asomaning is confident the situation for workers in Ghana’s timber sector will improve soon because, in parallel with training in the workplace, the government is increasing its checks on companies. Under its new system for ensuring that timber products are legal, the Timber Validation Department will audit companies to check they comply with health and safety requirements. 

Factory employee operating a saw

Factory employee operating a saw

Source: Capture Ghana, EU FLEGT Facility

Factory employee operating a saw

Source: Capture Ghana, EU FLEGT Facility

Among other things, it will check that companies have the required annual health and safety certificate from the Factories Inspectorate Division of the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations. And soon, those that lack the relevant paperwork will be unable to legally sell their goods.
That’s because Ghana is close to fully implementing the system for verifying the legality of timber products that is outlined in its Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the EU. Once Ghana and the EU are satisfied that the system works as intended, Ghana’s timber products will need to conform with all relevant laws to be exported or sold locally. That includes health and safety requirements.

“We are trying to educate them on the right things to do — from the forest to when the timber is either exported or sold on the domestic market — so that they’re in compliance with the legality assurance system,” says Richard Gyimah, Validation of Legal Timber Programme / VPA Project Analyst, at the Forestry Commission. The message is spreading. “The Timber Validation Department audit team who were here also urged us to provide the workers with personal protective equipment, or else it was going to be a non-conformance against us,” says Appiah.

As Ghana increases its oversight of the forest sector the business case for improving health and safety will become clear. The country is close to fully implementing the system for verifying the legality of timber products that is outlined in its Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the EU. Once Ghana and the EU are satisfied that the system works as intended, Ghana’s timber products will need to conform with all relevant laws to be exported or sold locally. That includes health and safety requirements. “When the Timber Validation Department says products are illegal and cannot be traded, companies will change,” says Asomaning.