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Protecting workers’ lives must be everyone’s top priority – SAFTU

In three successive days in the first week of September 2018, at least eleven workers died and dozens were injured in horrific disasters, which were not the result of ‘accidents’ but of employers’ failures to comply with safety regulations.

These deaths and injuries should have never happened, and the South African Federation of Trade Unions demands that workers’ lives must always be employers’ top priority. Lives must never be lost through employers’ negligence, or incompetence or worst of all as a result of budget cuts which lead to safety precautions not being implemented or maintained.

Rheinmetall Denel Munition explosion

The week began with the explosion at the Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) factory in Macassar, near Somerset West, which destroyed the entire building, and damaged blast walls around it. The noise could be heard 30 km away. At least eight workers were killed.

Given the extremely dangerous substances that such a factory produces, there ought to be exceptionally strict rules to ensure that such incidents never occur, yet RDM CEO Norbert Schulze says there have been three other incidents there and at another site in the past 10 years.

“One of the incidents was a fire which we had in one of the places here, we had three people injured and one fatality. We had the second case in Arlington in one of the plants, which is a chemical plant of ours, and it caused damage to the building but no damage to people… There was also leakage at one of the tanks on this site, but that had no effect on workers or the surrounding area”.

The explosion has also raised the question of whether factories making such products should be close to residential areas, which could be affected by such explosions. Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille has already demanded that the factory be moved from Macassar.

Metrorail crash

The next day there was a collision between two Metrorail trains at Selby, Johannesburg. Fortunately there were no fatalities but 112 people, including four Metrorail workers, suffered injuries and many were take to four local hospitals.

Goodman Matampi‚ acting provincial manager at Gauteng Metrorail‚ said: “The accident is regrettable and happened while the trains were authorised manually in the section, due to a signalling upgrade programme that is under way.”

Manual authorisations occur when electronic signals are not working and officials manually instruct train drivers when to stop and go.

In January however the Railway Safety Regulator of South Africa (RSR) briefly banned Prasa from using manual signalling for trains‚ under threat of criminal penalties. The regulator accused Prasa of gambling with thousands of commuters’ lives by using cellphones to communicate during manual authorisations of trains.

The ban was a response to a crash in Germiston in January‚ when at least 200 people were injured when one train was authorised to be stationary but another on the same track hit it from the back. Also in January‚ 19 people died when a Shosholoza Meyl train collided with a truck in Kroonstad.

But later the regulator lifted the prohibition directive.

The United National Transport Union (UNTU) general-secretary Steve Harris said that more than half of Prasa’s trains operated on manual authorisations‚ because of broken signalling systems. “When trains are manually authorised to continue a route‚ they are more exposed to human error as what happened this morning when the two trains collided on the same route.”

UNTU suspects that manual authorisations of both trains could have caused Tuesday’s crash. Harris said: “UNTU’s repeated warnings that Prasa is a ticking time bomb operating death machines‚ due to its inability to combat crime and vandalism‚ its inability to do proper maintenance and its inability to procure spares‚ has so far fallen on deaf ears.”

SAFTU demands that the ban on manual authorities be re-enforced and that PRASA takes immediate steps to strengthen and implement safety measure to protect the lives of workers and commuters.

The federation believes that the rising number of accidents must be linked to the alleged corruption and financial mismanagement at Prasa, which, according to the Auditor-General has led it to the verge of financial collapse. At the end of the last financial year it made a previously undisclosed loss of R1.7bn and the accumulated loss at the end of March 2017 was R4.4bn.

If that even a percentage of that R4.4bn has instead been spent on improving safety an accident like this could have been prevented.

Bank of Lisbon Building fire

The next day saw another horrific tragedy when three fire-fighters, members of DEMAWUSA, died while trying to extinguish a fire in the Bank of Lisbon building in Johannesburg occupied by the Gauteng Departments of Health‚ Human Settlements and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs.

One fell from the 23rd floor and the other two died from smoke inhalation. Eight other firefighters were hospitalised for injuries and smoke inhalation and a ninth was admitted to hospital due to exhaustion. The trauma of losing three of their colleagues in Wednesday’s fatal fire in Johannesburg has led to more firefighters being hospitalised.

1,115 public service workers had to be evacuated, and other nearby buildings were also evacuated, as the fire raged on for three days.

What is absolutely shocking is that the Gauteng Premier, David Makhura has admitted that the building did not comply with health and safety standards‚ scoring just 21%, when the minimum standard for human habitation is 85%.

This was revealed in a report on this, and other other government buildings, which was presented to the provincial government just a week earlier. The report showed, and therefore the government knew, that ten floors of the Bank of Lisbon building were not safe for occupation.

A terrible example of the building’s faults was that when the firefighters arrived on the scene, the building did not have functioning fire extinguishers and the water pressure and emergency exit routes were inadequate.

Gauteng infrastructure development MEC Jacob Mamabolo also acknowledged that the Bank of Lisbon building was one of eight government buildings which were deemed unsafe. In a chilling admission he added that “Some buildings are below Bank of Lisbon”! SAFTU demands that he names them and inform hose working in them.

Makhura says some departments were in the process of moving and that “the plan was to move all of them, and that gets done in phases.” The provincial government will now find temporary offices for all staff in the eight unsafe buildings‚ the process of finding new buildings would be fast-tracked. They aim to have new offices for the three departments housed in the Bank of Lisbon building by Monday.

This is far too little and too late. The public service unions have every right to refuse to work in any of these eight buildings, or in any other replacement buildings until they have been made fully compliant wth all regulations.

The disgraceful failure to not have already made these eight buildings safe must be linked to budget cuts announced by the province in February. The department of human settlements received about R500m less, while the infrastructure programme budget was cut from R12.2bn to R11.32bn.

A similar issue arises with the Johannesburg Emergency Management Service, which is also suffering from budget cuts leading to shortages of fire engines and equipment, that put firefighters at even more risk that they are already.

The firefighters themselves are extremely angry. DEMAWUSA members raised the state of the fire service in 2015, and complained about the lack of readiness due to cuts in the budget and the risk this placed on the public. The reaction of the then ANC City Government was to suspend the firefighters who went public, some for up to six months, for speaking the truth. They were reinstated and won their case, but very little changed.

It now emerges that expert advice, given shortly after this attempt to silence firefighters, was that Joburg needed a minimum of 104 appliances to cover the City, when in fact, only seventeen are operable! Fire engines are often only able to do one trip before they have to be sent back for repairs

Members of the public have inundated radio stations praising fire fighters, but also saying that when they have reported a fire, especially in vulnerable poor communities, the fire service has said that they cannot respond because their appliances are being used elsewhere.

Conclusion

The common thread linking all three atrocious incidents is that protecting workers’ safety and security, and even their lives, are nowhere near the top priority for government and employers. Neither is the delivery of good service to the people a top priority.

PRASA has refused to invest in providing a safe and efficient service for its mainly working-class passengers, while the money that could have been used to pay for this necessary overhaul was falling into the pockets of some of its directors who were looting millons of rands of its assets.

The Gauteng government’s failure to make buildings safe is closely tied to their financial mismanagement. One of the departments using the Bank of Lisbon building for their workers is the department of health that sentenced 144 psychiatric patients to death between 2015 and 2017 after being transferring them from private Life Esidimeni health facilities, to largely ill-equipped NGOs, in order to save money.

These disaster need not have happened. Firefighters know all to well the risks their job entails, but they should never die fighting fires which could have been prevented by proper safety standards being maintained!

Nor should workers ever have to risk their lives working in buildings which their employer knows are dangerous.

SAFTU demands that worker’s lives must never be lost because their employers are more interested in cutting costs, and in particular are themselves corruptly looting the money which should have been used to bring buildings up to standard

Safety at work will now become one of the central demands of the mass campaign in which SAFTU and its allies in communities and civil society are mobilising, leading to the three-day general strike later the year