Reports of public office buildings closing because of environmental issues are not new. But now, they have become too frequent, too costly and shameful.
This vexing trend has no place in a modern Barbados where productivity and innovation – indeed, just being open for business – are most needed to kickstart economic recovery.
On Tuesday, operations at the Town & Country Planning Department, a critical pillar of business, grounded to a halt.
Officers, frustrated with poor conditions at the Garrison, St Michael historic building, some whom had fallen sick previously, were forced to walk off the job after their longstanding concerns remained unaddressed.
The offending issues include a leaky roof, mould, rodent infestation and dirty carpeting.
“Generally speaking it has affected the health of staff to the extent they were forced to take sick leave and complained of respiratory illness among other things,” Assistant General Secretary of the National Union of Public Workers Wayne Walrond told us.
This is but the latest of an embarrassingly growing litany of woeful buildings in need of overhaul, repair or even basic maintenance and janitorial service.
The Personnel Administration Department was plagued with similar woes; so, too, the Treasury Building, among others. The old National Insurance Building, opened by The Queen in February 1975 lies abandoned in the heart of the City.
But even the Fairchild Street white elephant is not the most glaring, shameful example; the relatively new, majestic, Supreme Court Complex that sits on White Park Road has been closed since last year because of environmental issues.
And it’s not just Government offices. Several of the nation’s schools have also been experiencing their own woes.
It is an all-too-familiar story, so much so that the term “sick building syndrome” has become a ready diagnosis pronounced on any building whence two or more civil servants are observed fleeing.
Sick building syndrome is believed to be caused by a number of factors: poor air quality; dust; chemical and other fumes; smoke; and fungi, among other particles.
Experts say it exists when the occupants of a building experience health challenges or discomfort that appear to be linked to the length of time spent in a particular environment.
The symptoms include but are not limited to: headaches; tiredness; blocked or runny noses; dry, itchy skin; dry, sore eyes; throat irritation; and rashes.
But syndrome or not there is an underlying issue, a key culprit stalking Government building: poor maintenance and, in some cases, no maintenance.
It simply makes no sense for a government to build grand buildings with hard-earned taxpayers dollars and think they will care of themselves.
Indeed, Government has scarce resources, but scrimping on maintenance in public buildings is pennywise, pound foolish.
Hardly do these problems crop up overnight. They develop over time, and if they are sidestepped for more “pressing issues”, they will hurt us all in the long run. This is why we are paying the proverbial piper today.
The proper maintenance of buildings cannot be overstated. Government clearly needs to come up with a system where efficient and trained personnel are hired and the job is not left to those who can patch here and there.
Indeed, this is ripe for a public-private sector partnership that is a win-win for a cash-strapped, heavily indebted government and a building maintenance industry.
Such an approach can extend the life of buildings for decades, resulting in millions of dollars in savings compared to costly repairs, reconstruction and rent for temporary accommodation.
It is high time that we prioritize the health of public buildings so that workers can have a safe and sound environment where they can focus on their work rather than cracked walls and mould.
Workers thrive in a healthy work environment where they are provided with what they need. All employers should know this, especially the Government of Barbados.
We are therefore calling on the authorities to set in motion a comprehensive long-term maintenance programme for public buildings.
This could easily start with the most basic step of maintenance – inspection. An assessment of all public facilities and their repair needs. That way, we can keep an eye on the small stuff and fix it before it turns into a huge problem. This should be buttressed by the establishment of proper maintenance schedules, maintenance records, oversight and accountability in a General Services Administration.
We note that Ministry of Transport and Public Works has the added the portfolio of maintenance.
We are keen to see that such a move will result in a cogent plan to address this grave situation as a matter of priority.
For our country suffers from a sick syndrome that afflicts the proper care and attention to valuable buildings, the property of the People of Barbados.