Pmb power workers revolt

2012-04-03 00:00

YEARS of neglect of Pietermaritzburg’s electricity infrastructure sparked a protest by municipal electricity department workers at the city hall yesterday.

Calling for improved safety conditions, the handful of protesters caused traffic chaos in Chief Albert Luthuli Street. They threatened to return today — in greater numbers.

Rocky Madondo, regional deputy chairperson of the SA Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu), told The Witness: “Almost every year we lose a worker as a result of working in unsafe conditions and we need the municipal manager to address us on this matter.”

A few streets away, at St Anne’s Hospital, electricity department worker Bhekuyise Linos Sithole lay recovering from injuries after being shocked while working on an overhead cable at Sweetwaters at the weekend.

Also fuelling their frustration was the release last week of an Independent Development Trust (IDT) report that presented a disturbing picture of the state of electricity in Msunduzi after a three-month assessment.

Municipal manager Mxolisi Nkosi would not meet the protesters.

Unapologetically, he insisted that they use the prescribed channels to air their grievances. He insisted that the city was dealing with its challenges, including the electricity issue.

“That is why we tabled an extensive report on the city’s electricity infrastructure before the executive committee last week,” said Nkosi, on the eve of his 100th day in the job.

On the issue of safety, he added: “We have addressed it in the IDT report, so I do not understand why there is a need for employees to behave in this manner.”

Nkosi said he would have legitimised an illegal march had he addressed yesterday’s protesters.

Sources in the electricity department pointed out the gravity of the situation. Staff said there would have been more deaths recently had it not been for workers becoming wary and preferring not to fix something if it could lead to deaths or injuries.

“For example, with no pole maintenance carried out for years, electricity poles through out the city are rotting and in danger of falling,” said one.

“Workers try to avoid using ladders and use the bucket trucks, which are more expensive to use, and because there are so few, jobs take longer to do.” The solution was simple, said the source. “Restart the pole maintenance programme and replace rotting poles.” Another source said staff labelled sub-stations “death traps”.

“For years we have been asking the municipality for flame-proof suits to enter the sub-stations, similar to the ones worn by Eskom workers, but our requests have fallen on deaf ears.”

Staff were reluctant to attend safety meetings any longer, saying they were “a waste of time”.

The sources also spoke of an exodus of staff.

“Four staff members left last week to Eskom where the safety standards and work conditions are much better,” said the source.

“More are due to leave at the end of April. They are fed up that nobody listens to them.” The worker stressed: “In electricity, safety is number one.

“Somebody needs to get this message to the Msunduzi Municipality.”

Samwu’s Madondo said the workers were not happy that the electricity department had no one in charge. “We are like a ship without a captain. That is why we need the manager to let us know when they [will be] filling the post for process manager at the electricity department.”

He added that if there were any accidents staff were held responsible.

“They cannot take this any longer.”

Last week’s IDT report described the electricity department’s central control room as being “like a pilot without a radar”.

“The operator will not successfully isolate the system as a result of a lack of reliable communication between the control centre and the equipment on site,” said IDT project manager Sizwe Zulu.

“This puts lives of municipal personnel at risk as these can cause fatal accidents …”

Six years ago The Witness reported that the city’s electricity department was like a sinking ship with only sporadic maintenance having been carried out for the six to seven years beforehand. There were also reportedly no qualified and experienced staff to do the work.

Last year the daily reported that had a five-year plan been approved by the council in 2007, the maintenance would have been completed in the current financial year. However, funds for the project were not made available.

• Thobani.Ngqulunga@witness.co.za

March 2009: Bonginkosi Miya (35) was electrocuted in March 2009. He was working on a faulty power line in Newholmes. This was after he had worked on a 24-hour stand-by shift during which he responded to several power outages. Miya was described as a senior and experienced electrician who was exhausted and had allegedly begged to be relieved just before he went out to the job that killed him.

November 2007: Cassim Shaik Karrim (46) plunged to his death from the top of an electricity pole in Woodlands. Witnesses alleged the electricity pole was rotting at the base and could not support his weight. They asked about safety harnesses and were concerned that rotting and falling poles had become hazardous for residents as well.

1997: Andre Payn was burnt to death at the Khan-Bombay Road sub-station when a circuit breaker exploded. According to colleagues, every part of his body was burnt except for his feet as he had been wearing his safety boots. Some attempt was made to put a maintenance plan in place immediately after his death, but the this fell away shortly afterwards.

Injuries:

April 2012: Linos Sithole suffered a broken leg and badly injured shoulder after being shocked while working on overhead wires at Sweetwaters.

June 2011: Ozzie Dawood was injured after being shocked while working on overhead wires.

INDEPENDENT Development Trust (IDT) project manager Sizwe Zulu presented a disturbing picture of the state of electricity in Msunduzi to council last week.

He highlighted:

• Insufficient network capacity;

• Unreliable and poorly maintained sub-transmission cables and lines;

• Ageing equipment;

• Unreliable system protection;

• An unreliable system control

centre;

• Poor revenue collection;

• A lack of an equipped maintenance team and accessories;

• A total collapse of the network could be a future scenario;

• Limited or no maintenance is done;

• Serious challenges found in Msunduzi’s ability to operate and maintain the electricity infrastructure;

• A qualified engineer must be urgently appointed or the municipality could lose its electricity distribution licence;

• Major assets like transformers’ switch gears and protection relays were either old or not functioning and could lead to fatal injury of electricians working there;

• Unreliable communication at the central control room means municipal personnel are at risk of fatal accidents;

• Of the 40 transformers in the city only three can be maintained; 37 need to be replaced;

• R700 million over five years is needed for electricity infrastructure challenges.

Headlines in ‘The Witness’ dating back to 2006 show that the electricity crisis is not new.

Deaths and injuries at the Msunduzi electricity departmentWhat last week’s IDT briefing said

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