CWAY Group Nigeria Limited, a food and beverage manufacturer of purified water, fruit-based milk drinks, and fruit juices, among others has been accused by its workers of maintaining an unhygienic work environment which has led to the spread of Hepatitis B among some of its workers.
The Ota, Ogun State firm, which is known for its 5-gallon water jugs and dispensers, is being accused by its factory workers of exposing them to Hepatitis B due to the filthy work environment at its factory.
The workers who number about 26 claim they were certified with a clean bill of health prior to commencing work at the company’s milk factory only to test positive for Hepatitis B six months into the job.
In addition, they accuse CWAY of reneging on the N35,000 basic monthly salary promised at the time they were hired, only to pay them N18,000 per month. The workers also claim that the company tried to dismiss them when they tested positive for Hepatitis B without treatment and adequate compensation. It was only the intervention of the National Union of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Employees that saved them from being terminated, they said.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Hepatitis B is a viral infection that attacks the liver and can cause both acute and chronic disease. The virus is transmitted through contact with the blood or other body fluids of an infected person. HEP B can also be spread by mucosal exposure to infected blood and various body fluids, as well as through saliva, menstrual, vaginal, and seminal fluids. Sexual transmission of hepatitis B may occur, particularly in unvaccinated heterosexual persons with multiple sex partners or contact with sex workers. Transmission of the virus may also occur through the reuse of needles and syringes either in health-care settings or among persons who inject drugs. In addition, infection can occur during medical, surgical and dental procedures, through tattooing, or through the use of razors and similar objects that are contaminated with infected blood.
The infected workers described some of the production practices that the company kept as unhygienic.
“The milk has to be boiled to increase its shelf life. Where we boil the milk is very unhygienic. After bottling the milk and covering it with the machine, it is passed through the boiler and cooling tunnel. But there will still be some bottles that are leaking. The bottles stay inside the tunnel for about 45 minutes.
“In the cooling tunnel, the milk is boiled at 90 degrees in dirty waste water and also cooled. As the bottles pass through the dirty waste water, some of the waste water will penetrate into the milk through the leaking bottles.
“After 45 minutes, anyone that is leaking, we will have to burst it and pour it into another container. This container will be returned and its content rebottled. It is a very unhygienic process,” the worker said.
The affected workers also complained of unhygienic rest area, which they considered a breeding ground for infection.
They said that the dressing room has cracks on the walls, with water continuously running through the crevices, which forms a pool covering the entire room, where workers on night shift are expected to sleep.
The workers explained that the water leaks originated from leaky pipes in the toilet. They said that the restroom also has filth covering the entire floor, a dirty-looking squat water closet.
One worker said: “We don’t like sleeping in the dressing room. We don’t know if that was where we contacted the infection, because toilet water flows into the dressing room. More than 700 workers are using six toilets. We do mass bathing. This is one of the things that must have contributed to the spread of the infection.”
CWAY Group, confirmed through a Deputy Director at the firm, Mr. Tony Ojumoola, of the spread of Hepatitis B virus among some of its workers.
Mr. Ojumoola, explained that the company normally conduct pre-employment medical tests on food handlers before hire and every six months thereafter. He said that some of the workers tested positive for the virus when the test was conducted in August. Thereafter, the test was carried out in batches, on all the workers in the company. He confirmed that 23 workers tested positive for Hepatitis B and were asked to stop working.
The Deputy Director said that based on the regulations of NAFDAC, the affected workers were to go for medical treatment. He said that they consulted with Union Executives to alert them to the development.
“We wanted them out of production, while they go for treatment. The treatment, by our own research, will take up to three months. We consulted the state hospital in Ota, we met with the medical consulting team there, and they advised us that the treatment is in phases and will take three months.”
An agreement was reached between the Union and the company, whereby the firm would pay for the treatment of the affected workers for three months, and also pay their salaries during that period.
Mr. Ojumoola said that the company kept its own end of the deal by paying the workers’ wages while they were out of work getting treatment. However, he noted that after the first month, some of the workers, about 70% opted for voluntary disengagement. After engaging the Union and the lawyers representing the affected workers, those who wanted to be disengaged were paid-off and only about three persons continued with the treatment, he said.
Ogun State Ministry of Health reaction
The Ogun State Commissioner for Health, Babatunde Ipaye, said that the ministry was working more in the areas of prevention of the spread of Hepatitis B through public enlightenment and immunization. He said that the agency had immunized several million people yearly, especially children.
The commissioner affirmed that the virus is transmitted similar to HIV, but mostly through unprotected sex.
“Just like HIV, there must be direct contact with body fluid before it can be transmitted. If a factory worker has Hepatitis B and his or her job is not related to contact with human body fluid, he or she is most likely to get it from sexual intercourse,” Ipaye said.
The Director of Information and Special Duties, NAFDAC, Abubakar Jimoh, said that the regulatory agency did not receive a formal report on the incident from the company. Instead, they heard about it from aggrieved factory workers.
He said that the agency made more discoveries on the nature and spread of the infectious disease when the agency carried out a routine inspection of the factory.
Jimoh said that the management of CWAY told them the affected workers had been moved away from food handling to logistics. He added that investigations were still ongoing.
So far, the agency discovered that some of the workers were dismissed contrary to what the company had earlier said.
The NAFDAC director said that he wanted to allay any fear that the public may have about consuming food made by the company. He noted that Hepatitis B could only be transmitted through sex, blood sharing/transfusion and kissing, not through food handling and consumption.
“We need to allay the fears of people that those who are consuming the foods produced by that company have contracted or can contract Hepatitis B; the answer is no.”
Jimoh added that NAFDAC’s regulations stipulate that prospective workers in food production must be medically tested for certain diseases, adding that further investigations will reveal if the company ignored that rule.