Left to battle depression, spinal cord paralysis and deafness, 39-year-old Nathan Umana says he is also contending with the anxiety of official neglect.
A father of four, Mr Umana’s high hopes of building a career in engineering, with a beautiful family to complement, was cut short when one month after his marriage, a fatal workplace accident changed his life for the worse.
With tears in his eyes, Mr Umana struggled for strength to tell the story of how the April 14, 2015 accident at a construction site in Jabi Lake Mall kept him in a state of coma for four days and still threatens to take his life.
“I was inspecting the work because my departmental head was on leave. It was during that time that the building collapsed with me underground,” said an apparently weak Mr Umana, whose vocal strength had also been impeded by the gory incident.
With one word after another, Mr Umana battled to paint the picture of the incident as well as he could.
How he was employed
According to the 39-year-old, he was employed in 2012 as a grade four engineer at Bouygues Construction Company after obtaining a national diploma certificate in mechanical engineering.
After three months of working with the firm, Mr Umana’s appointment was confirmed by the Nigerian branch of the France-based international company.
For Mr Umana, the experience of working with Bouygues construction appeared promising, with a monthly earning which ranged from N70, 000 to over N80, 000, depending on the nature of work days; until that life-threatening incident proved insuperable.
As aptly put by Mr Umana, the location was a normal construction setting.
With machines, compactors and other building equipment on the ground, the young man was at the base of the building.
Suddenly, like the earth plunged by an earthquake, the three-storey building fell on Mr Umana.
“I don’t know whether it was the compactor or the roller that fell directly on me. But it really affected me. I was in a coma for four days. When I gained consciousness, I could not recall anyone or anything. I suffered a loss of memory for three months. I also began having hearing impediments and intermittent mental instability,” Mr Umana said.
Expectedly, Mr Umana’s employers began the process for his recovery.
However, that decision by the construction company was also militated by the zeal for funding.
According to Mr Umana; after a specialist centre known as the ear nose and throat (ENT) clinic located in zone four area of Abuja recommended the provision of a hearing aid worth N500,000 for him, Mr Umana explained that Bouygues Construction Company hesitated to buy the hearing aid because “the cost was rather high.”
Consequently, Mr Umana was referred to another specialist centre in Jabi and the hearing aid, which was expected in three weeks, was only provided over seven months later.
During that period, Mr Umana explained that he was soon left with the option of learning to read people’s lips, while the company paid for the services of the other specialist centre.
Laid off in pains
According to Mr Umana, it was during this period, when the injured man was practically at his wits end, that he was summoned by his employers who informed him of the “decision to lay him off.”
“When the hearing aid came, it was not functioning properly. Later I could receive a sound but could not assimilate what it was. It was during this time that my HR (Human Resources Department) called me to say that they could not engage my services anymore.”
Apparently shattered by the news, Mr Umana said he responded by asking the company where they expected him to go after his sack, given the state of his health.
Sent to NSITF
Mr Umana said he was then told by Bouygues construction, that he was already enrolled in an insurance programme with the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF).
He added that he was told by his managers at Bouygues construction, that the NSITF was responsible for his upkeep under his current state.
Their claim was backed by section 26 of the NSITF act. The section provides that: “In addition to other compensation provided by this act, the NSITF board may provide for the injured employee any medical, surgical, hospital nursing and other care or treatment, transport, medicines, crutches and apparatus, including artificial members that it may consider reasonably necessary at the time of the injury and thereafter, during the disability, to cure and relief from the effects of the injury or alleviate those effects.
According to the section, the board has powers to make its rules on the provision of the required care to the injured employee.
According to its act, the NSITF board shall be responsible for the rehabilitation of employees who suffer work-related injuries, disabilities or occupational diseases.
However, as alleged by Mr Umana’s lawyer, Femi Adedeji, the construction company failed to properly play its role in the insurance of Mr Umana.
“It was after we took up the matter and began communicating with the insurance company, along with Bouygues, that the construction company took seriously the issue of Mr Umana’s insurance.”
Mr Adedeji, a lawyer with the chambers of human rights activist, Femi Falana, said his office was called into the matter, over two years after Mr Umana was officially laid off from work.
Explaining further, Mr Umana added that even the decision of the company to fire him was made without proper consideration about his severance pay and other entitlements.
“They initially said they would only give me N500, 000. At that time I had an outstanding medical bill worth about N750,000. So I wondered where I would get the rest of the money from. A woman, Engineer Nkem, promised to talk to them, which she did, and they made available N3 million,” Mr Umana said.
Employers reject alternative work placement
According to Mr Umana, the female engineer identified simply as Ms Nkem, a staff of the HR department, recommended that the company places Mr Umana on light duty rather than have him fired. Following a decision of the company’s manager, however, that request was turned down by the company.
Not even a request for the construction company to employ Mr Umana’s wife, Edidiong, who had been laid off from work after six months of looking after her husband’s health, was considered by the construction company.
“The manager told me that they were doing me a favour. At that time, I was recommended for a cochlear implant expected to cost from N17 million to N20 million.
“The company took the decision to pay N7 million, pending when the NSITF makes the payment for the recommended implant.”
According to Mr Umana’s lawyers, the failure of Bouygues construction to fulfil its part of the insurance policy from the start and the seeming neglect of duty on the part of NSITF resulted in a series of complication for the already disturbed 39-year-old.
Mr Umana also said he was only able to contact the NSITF after his lawyers intervened, despite claims by Bouygues construction that the fund had taken over his matter, much earlier.
“It became very difficult for me. I could neither hear from the NSITF nor from my office. Anytime I tried to visit my office, I was treated like an unwanted object. They would send me away like a pest,” Mr Umana said.
After a fierce battle with both agencies, Mr Adedeji said they secured a meeting with the NSITF. He said the outcome of the meeting was frustrating.
“Interpreting section 26 of their act, they claimed that the section provides that Mr Umana is only entitled to a health care that would have been possible for him to personally pay for.
“We are saying that that interpretation is mischievous and outright falsehood. There is nothing in the section they are interpreting that suggests such,” Mr Adedeji said.
He said the NSITF argued that its expected intervention is discretionary, based on the provisions of the law.
Responding to the allegation of neglect by the NSITF; the fund’s head of complaints and compensation department; Chris Esedebe, confirmed the submission made by Mr Adedeji that the law allows the board to act based on its discretion.
“The section 26 says that besides the compensation, the board “may” provide for the injured employee, any medical and other treatments as stated there. I am emphasising that “may”, which means there are other conditions to follow,” Mr Esedebe said.
He also said the subsection (6) section 26, above, allows the NSITF to consider the contributions made on behalf of the employee before concluding on the cost to spend on treatment.
“Section 26 (6) now came into play, because we needed to know the likely cost. We found that the treatment he was said to be in need of was cochlear implant at N25 million.
“That subsection says: The fees or remuneration provided under this section, shall not be more than the fees that will be properly and reasonably charged if the employee were paying.”
Mr Umana’s lawyers, however, argued that the reference to the subsection (6) made by Mr Esedebe was created to prevent hospitals from charging exorbitant fees.
The NSITF has insisted that what the subsection implies, is that that the fund would not be responsible, where the employee’s contribution cannot cover for the expected cost of rehabilitation or treatment.
Mr Esedebe, who said they only had details of the man recorded as Mr Ekerette, also added that employees were at liberty to appeal to the NSITF in the event where they feel aggrieved over the decision of the fund.
In a further reaction, the director of public relations at Bouygues construction, Hassan Shuaibu, said Mr Umana was “not laid off, mainly because of his health condition.”
Although Mr Shuaibu confirmed that Mr Umana was employed on a full-time basis, he also argued that the employment of field workers attached to clients or official contractors were never static.
“When the site where the contractors are working closes, their job ends. Most of our contracts are either for 18 months or thereabouts. If it exceeds 18 months, that means the client did not pay us,” Mr Shuaibu said.
The spokesperson added that his office could not employ Mrs Umana’s wife because the activity level at Bouygues construction was low.
A member of the firm’s HR department, who did not want to be named, however, said Bouygues construction was still making payments to the NSITF on behalf of Mr Umana, a point confirmed by the fund.
According to the victim, however, the monthly allowance of N35,000 paid by the NSITF is not even enough to cover for his daily health needs.
“The worse part now is that if I am unable to treat myself properly at any point, the mental problem threatens to return. I cannot stand for too long. If I walk for more than five minutes, it feels like something is pulling me, from behind, very stiff,” Mr Umana said, adding that he needs all the support he can get.