Industrial tragedies buried under paper piles

2014-04-02 10:00

In 1997, 15 workers at the Sasol plant in Secunda were burnt to death in what was described at the time as a ­“catastrophic fire”.

What caused the blaze that killed them, how did they die and could they have been saved? These were questions the next of kin and their union wanted to know.

They are still waiting for answers. Although an inquiry was held under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the labour department has not released the report. Nor has there been an inquest.

One reason the department gives for this is that such ­reports are sent to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions to decide if anyone should be prosecuted.

There is seldom any action and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions is on record as having expressed “serious concern” about the standard of these reports. The poor quality apparently makes further action difficult, if not impossible.

“But there is no reason why the reports cannot be made public,” says campaigning lawyer Richard Spoor. He points out that by suppressing the reports of its inspectorate, the department of labour avoids scrutiny and accountability.

And the Secunda tragedy is only one of many such ­incidents that have left grieving next of kin in the dark and without closure.

However, later this year, in a high court action in which Spoor is part, the department may at last be forced to make information available that not only gives answers to the families, but may also provide suggestions about how such tragedies can be avoided in future – and perhaps how better investigations may be carried out.

The case, lodged in the North Gauteng High Court, ­concerns the blaze that destroyed most of the Paarl Print works in April 2009, in which 13 workers died and more than 10 were injured.

It has been brought by the Industrial Health Resource Group of the University of Cape Town, together with representatives of nine families, represented by Spoor, ­labour federation Cosatu and two affiliated unions.

One of the unions, the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers’ Union is the union still waiting for the report from the Secunda fire of 1997. The other union represented at Paarl is the National Union of Metalworkers.

But as the court papers reveal, there are other unions and many other families that have been waiting in vain for answers about how industrial tragedies occurred, how they might have been prevented and how and why people died.

Listed as examples before the court are the manganese poisonings at the Assamang smelter in Cato Ridge in 2007 and the furnace eruptions at Assamang and Highveld Steel a year later that together claimed seven lives.

“It is essential that reports about any serious accidents be made public,” says Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven. The federation is concerned that, without such information, similar and preventable accidents will continue to happen.

The same fear is expressed by Spoor. In the court ­application, Industrial Health Resource Group director ­Nicholas Henwood states: “The fire spread rapidly, accompanied by clouds of dense black smoke, reducing visibility almost completely.

It appears that the persons who died in the inferno were trapped by the flames and blinded by the smoke and could not find their way out of the premises in time to ­prevent their own deaths.”

Implicated is a polystyrene roofing insulation that ­continues to be widely used in business, warehouse and factory premises around the country. Henwood records that the same roof insulation was involved in a warehouse fire at the Duncan Dock in Cape Town in 1993.

Henwood’s group, the families, Cosatu and its affiliates were told in July 2009 that the labour department was “not at liberty to disclose” the Paarl Print report. More ­correspondence followed and, in February 2011, notice was given that the report had “not yet been finalised”.

By July 2011, the department stated that the report had been sent to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions. But the directorate noted that it was “not at liberty to disclose” the contents.

Frustrated, the Industrial Health Resource Group and ­Cosatu in March last year filed an application under the Promotion of Access to Information Act. There was no ­response from the department. Assuming this meant refusal, the Industrial Health Resource Group and Cosatu lodged an appeal in May. This time there was a response: rejected.

And so, five years after the event, with the Directorate of Public Prosecutions saying it has no objection to its ­release, a report that should be public record goes to court.

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