State leniency means work accidents go unpunished

The authorities have promised to shed ample light on the fatal April 3 accident at Corinth Pipeworks, where an explosion claimed the life of six factory workers and injured another three. Seven factory officials have been charged over the accident, including the president and managing director, but whether this will guarantee full attribution of blame remains in doubt. The accident at the pipe-making factory is by no means unique. Accidents where workers – most of them foreigners – are victims and which take place during ongoing works happen with relative frequency. Workplace accidents at construction projects in Greece have caused 3,500 deaths in the past 30 years. Twenty have been killed in the past 10 months alone. The causes are many and various: lack of or deficient safety measures, criminal negligence by supervisors, work done incorrectly, or shoddy materials. Blame is laid and penalties imposed in only a few cases. A typical example, both of a fatal workplace accident and the impunity of those responsible, was the collapse of bridge scaffolding over the Attiki Odos in November 1999, which killed two workers and injured another nine. That morning, at least 30 workers were engaged in various duties at the work site of the Elefsina-Spata airport highway at the level of the road to Markopoulo. Two laborers, 42-year-old Michalis Ginaj, from Sarande in southern Albania and a father of two, and 23-year-old Yiannis Ghikas from Examili, also in Albania, were directly below a ladder and about to take a break to eat their lunch. Within a few seconds, they had been buried under tons of wet concrete. A few minutes later, supervisory engineers and contractors had literally vanished, in fear of the 48-hour period during which they could be summarily tried. «The collapse of the bridge was a stunning blunder,» works director Dimitris Papamichail said two days later. At the same time, then-Planning and Public Works Minister Costas Laliotis announced the creation of a three-member committee consisting of public works inspectors that would carry out an «urgent, stringent, in-depth investigation.» An independent scientific team of Athens National Technical University (NTUA) academics was also formed, after consultation with the chairman of the Technical Chamber, Costas Liaskas. Both teams pointed to the significant divergence between the real strength of the metal scaffolding and that stated and certified by its manufacturers as the basic cause of the collapse. Besides that, a number of other isolated causes, such as construction defects and localized overload, were highlighted. Moreover, the consortium in charge of the highway project, Attiki Odos, was found to have contravened its obligations toward the Greek State through a number of omissions in the study on scaffolding and wooden framework. The NTUA report said the irregular procedures that were followed when the concrete was poured could not in themselves have caused the collapse. The 11 construction firms that form the Attiki Odos consortium accepted responsibility, despite the fact that contractors for that particular stretch were only J&P Hellas and Elliniki Technodomiki. Light penalties It was only three years later that the procedure for imposing penalties was set in motion, during current Public Works Minister Vasso Papandreou’s tenure. It was then necessary to wait for the completion of a report by the Planning and Public Works Ministry’s (YPEHODE) disciplinary council. This was placed in the minister’s hands on September 27, 2002. The firms responsible were excluded from every competitive tender for three months – a punishment that was reduced to one month by the minister. Even more oddly, the document that notified the firms of the penalty was dated November 14, 2002 – only three days before the ban on competition expired, on November 17. The penalty thus lasted for precisely three days, a time period that spanned a weekend. In reply, the ministry said the firms concerned were aware of the punishment and had deliberately abstained from competitive tenders for the entire month that the ban was in force. This in itself betrays the fact that the contractors had inside information from YPEHODE. Many sources said that the time period was chosen so as to minimize losses. Whatever the case, a one-month ban on competitive bids on construction firms that had admitted their responsibility for an accident costing two people’s lives is unsatisfactory. The accident has probably been duly noted in the records kept on contractors, and is a black mark against the 11 firms. But this means little now, as they have since more than doubled their turnover.