Workplace deaths on alarming ascent

Employers violating health and safety regulations now face an increase of up to 700 percent in penalties (as much as 30,000 euros), the Labor Ministry announced on Monday, the same day that a Halkidiki building contractor faced a prosecutor after an 18-year-old Albanian laborer was fatally electrocuted on his construction site. Monday’s accident is the latest in a recent spate of fatal accidents on industrial sites in Greece – the apparent continuation of an upward trend which saw a 48-percent increase in fatalities last year, according to National Labor Inspectorate (SEPE) statistics for 2001 published this summer. The June report highlights non-implementation of health and safety regulations as the chief problem and attributes 46 percent of fatalities and 17.7 percent of non-fatal accidents at work last year to the construction and public works sectors (including Olympic Games-related projects). It also notes a rise of 48.7 percent in deaths of foreign workers over the same period (up to 39 in 2002 from 20 in the year 2000). Workplace fatalities reported in 2001 showed a 48-percent increase from 2000 (up to 188 from 127) following a more modest 9.5-percent rise from 1999 when 166 deaths were recorded (although the latter figure may be deceptively high, as it includes 36 deaths during the 5.9-Richter earthquake which shook Athens that year). There is no official toll of accidents or deaths for 2002 so far, although the Labor Ministry puts the number at around 100, which could mean that the sharp upward trend will level out slightly by year-end, when the final official figures for the year will be made public. A major concern, however, is that official statistics do not tell the full story due to inadequate reporting procedures explicitly criticized in a survey by Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistical service provider, and mentioned more fleetingly in SEPE’s report. Low declaration rate In its report «Accidents in the Workplace 1998-1999» (figures for more recent years are unavailable) Eurostat refers to the «less than exhaustive» reporting procedures in Greece and a handful of other member states. Indeed the report demonstrates that Greece has the worst track record – with a mere 39-percent «declaration rate» while many other countries have a 100-percent rate. Logically then, existing figures for Greece should be at least double but, as noted by Eurostat, this is impossible to determine categorically. (Eurostat statistics on workplace accidents in 2000 and beyond are unavailable as they are currently being collated, but it is interesting to note that the latest report notes a 3-percent drop in workplace fatalities in the EU between 1998 and 1999 as compared to an estimated 48.9-percent rise in Greece over the same period.) Concerns about the conclusiveness of official data are consolidated by the fact that only a fraction of staff employed in many sectors (construction, production, etc.) are officially declared to the Social Security Foundation (IKA) – as demonstrated in data charts included in SEPE’s report. IKA is also the authority that catalogs workplace deaths (and is the source of the government’s official statistics). But can it catalog the deaths of unregistered employees as efficiently as those already on its lists? Fatal falls An overall laxness in the protection of workers’ welfare appears to prevail as the key cause of accidents. But SEPE says it is conducting regular on-site inspections to ensure that vital resources (infrastructure, warning signals, on-site doctors, etc.) are in place on industrial sites to avoid common occurrences such as falls from great heights (due to insufficient scaffolding support or other inadequate safety measures) which are the cause of most fatalities; in 2001, there were 292 such falls, 40 of which were fatal. The construction sector comes out the worst from SEPE’s inspections, paying 30.6 percent of all fines imposed for safety regulation transgressions. But production facilities and utilities plants display an equally dismal performance. Last month, three contract workers died at an oil refinery near Corinth after inhaling toxic hydrogen sulphide fumes just a few days after an accident at a power plant in Megalopolis, in the southern Peloponnese, which caused the death of one worker and critically injured another. The incidents prompted the Supreme Court prosecutor to launch an investigation into industrial accidents and provoked the General Confederation of Greek Labor to reiterate its criticism of «the arbitrary behavior and lack of accountability of employers and the total lack of safety measures.» «The official statistics for accidents are just the tip of a much larger iceberg,» Spyros Drivas of the Hellenic Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (ELINYAE) told Kathimerini English Edition. «The legal infrastructure is in place for health and safety in the workplace, but it is not broadly implemented due to widespread employer complacency,» he said. Some employers, however, counter that it is often workers themselves who disregard safety regulations and say it is impossible to watch and discipline every employee every moment of the working day. The Labor Inspectorate’s monitoring council (SKEEE) highlights as one of the most worrying conclusions of SEPE’s report the rise in foreigners’ deaths, along with the increase in employers’ applications for licenses for overtime and Sunday shifts and an increase in contracts for rotating work. «Although (the conclusions) are not necessarily linked, SEPE should take them into account, especially as greater pressure comes to bear on Olympic Games projects as they approach completion deadlines,» the council notes. But there are problems beyond the accidents and fatalities we see (and perhaps don’t see). Complacency at employer level – apparently the chief reason for non-implementation of safety regulations which lead to accidents – can also provoke widespread illness in the workplace, ranging from musculo-skeletal disorders to debilitating stress. «This is a general predicament whose scope we can only imagine and which is virtually impossible to document,» Drivas said. The fact that Greeks work more hours per week than any of their EU counterparts (an average of 42.2) could be part of this broader problem.