Fire evokes fear and panic especially when flames occur in the presence of humans within an enclosed structure.

Many lessons have been learned from the March 18, 1996 Ozone Disco tragedy in Quezon City when fire killed 162 people; the 2001 QC Manor Hotel blaze where 75 people perished; the 2015 Kentex factory fire in Valenzuela City where 74 people lost their lives. In Davao City, 38 people died in a fire that hit the NCCC Mall on Dec. 23, 2017; and the fire at the Metro Ayala Center in Cebu last Jan. 6.

These fire incidents have resulted in convictions. However, cases still have to go through the appeals process. The other incidents are still either under investigation or are undergoing the judicial process. The question now is “how safe are these malls, business process outsourcing (BPO) facilities, hospitals, hotels, educational institutions and business establishments?”

As mentioned in a story in the Manila Bulletin dated Jan. 8, 2018, the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines proposed that the Department of Labor and Employment and the Bureau of Fire Protection should conduct a joint fire safety inspection of shopping malls nationwide in order to minimize fire incidents.

Alarmed over alleged gross violations of fire safety and health and safe workplace regulations as evidenced by the fire incidents in Davao and Cebu; Labor Sec. Silvestre H. Bello III has directed DOLE regional offices nationwide to coordinate with the local BFP to inspect the compliance of establishments particularly malls, BPO companies, hospitals, hotels, educational institutions and business establishments.

All the 38 fatalities in the Davao fire were call center agents working for the U.S. based – SSI firm, which leased a space at the mall. Some quarters had questioned the wisdom of allowing call centers – which run 24 hours – to occupy space at malls, which goes into lockdown mode at night and limit entrances and exits for security reasons.

The DOLE-BFP safety audit inspections will be conducted immediately to coincide with the forthcoming dry season when most fire incidents happen.

March is Fire Prevention Month, but it is also the time of the year when many fires occur.

In the Cordillera, DOLE Regional Director Exequiel Ronie A. Guzman met with Baguio Mayor Mauricio G. Domogan and Baguio Fire Marshall Nestor C. Gorio in separate coordination meetings for convergence on the strict implementation of fire safety compliance of establishments.

As agreed upon during the meeting, an inspector of the BFP-Baguio will join the inspection of DOLE in priority establishments such as malls, BPOs, hospitals, hotels, educational institutions, including those located in the Philippine Economic Zone.

Under the PEZA Law or Republic Act 7916, the PEZA administrator has the sole authority to inspect and issue permits to companies within economic zones. This is meant to reduce red-tape. That means companies within export zones are under the authority of PEZA, which in turn coordinates with the local governments only on certain services to be provided to locators.

A few years back, a memorandum of agreement was signed between the DOLE and the PEZA, where the former delegated technical safety inspections to the latter. Last Jan. 14, Sec. Bello revoked these agreements and DOLE reacquired its functions to inspect establishments operating within economic zones.

President Rodrigo Duterte gave the green light for the revocation of the PEZA-DOLE MOA signed in March 2006 and in June 2016.

The 2016 agreement relegated from DOLE to PEZA the function to conduct technical safety inspection, covering labor, occupational and health standards of the establishments under PEZA’s jurisdiction, while the 2006 agreement covers the joint enforcement of labor law standards and maintenance of industrial peace and conduct of labor education program.

The Labor Code gives DOLE the primary mandate over enforcement of labor laws and standards.

The DOLE has revised its rules on the administration and enforcement of labor laws to reinforce the implementation and secure a higher level of compliance at workplaces.

In Department Order 183, routine inspections and complaint inspections or occupational safety and health standard investigations can now be conducted pursuant to the visitorial power of the Secretary of Labor or authorized representatives, particularly a special inspection team.

Routine inspections shall be conducted in establishments engaged in hazardous work; those who employ children; those engaged in contracting or subcontracting arrangements; those that have 10 or more employees; and such other establishments or industries as may be determined by the Labor Secretary as priority.

The Secretary also ordered DOLE’s regional offices to intensify the inspection of all establishments to strictly enforce general law standards, occupational safety and health standards, technical safety standards as well as the right of workers to security of tenure./ Patrick T Rillorta