An economy built on human lives

It is unacceptable that construction projects, which will translate into millions of euros’ worth of profit for developers, are still so neglectful of even the most basic norms of health and safety for the poorest and most vulnerable category of workers

Monday’s tragic death of a 26-year-old Libyan man, on a construction site in Sliema, seems to underscore a ghastly paradox about Malta’s drive for ‘excellence’ in all areas.

Footage of the incident shows how the man – who was wearing no harness, helmet or any form of safety gear – ended up dangling from a rope, seven stories above ground, after the wooden plank he was on gave way. He tried to climb back up but slipped, falling to his death.

From a media perspective, the fact that footage was available placed local news outlets in a dilemma. Publicising the video would inevitably be construed as insensitive towards the victim’s family and friends. Readers were understandably outraged by the decision – taken by this newspaper, among others – to upload the footage online.

It was, in fact, a difficult decision to take. But given the sheer frequency of similar incidents at workplaces in Malta, and also that the video graphically highlights numerous systemic flaws in this country’s approach to occupational health and safety, we felt it was necessary to bring home the unacceptable level of risk to life and limb in an industry which is powering Malta’s economic drive forward.

It is unacceptable that construction projects, which will translate into millions of euros’ worth of profit for developers, are still so neglectful of even the most basic norms of health and safety for the poorest and most vulnerable category of workers. By extension, it is unconscionable that a country which sets so much store on ‘progress’ – a word which is only ever used in reference to economic advances – continues to turn a blind eye to life-threatening issues such as safety at the place of work.

Over the years, MaltaToday has published countless editorials on this issue: stressing the need for more vigilance, a more robust Occupational Health and Safety Authority, and clearer legislation when it comes to responsibility and accountability in such matters. And yet, the OHS sector remains woefully primitive and under-developed to this day. The result is that we have a five-star economy, built on the foundations of a zero-star safety infrastructure. This latest, utterly avoidable tragedy must be seen for what it is: a shocking indictment of a ghastly situation that has gone on far too long, and has already cost far too many lives.

MaltaToday decided to publish the footage in the hope that it would shock people, the construction sector and the authorities into action. It was a decision taken against the backdrop of decades of warnings and appeals that have constantly fallen on deaf ears.

These warnings have not come only from the press. In response to this latest fatality, the General Workers’ Union likewise decried the non-existent safety-levels at Malta’s workplaces.

“The footage that was published shows the irresponsibility of the employer who did not ensure the workers had protective clothing and safety harnesses,” the union said. “This is why it is necessary for the Occupational Health and Safety Authority to be given all tools to ensure that rules are observed by employers and workers. […] Our country can never accept in this day and age that construction workers are still working without the necessary equipment and protection.”

As with newspaper editorials, the GWU’s appeal was a repetition of countless other ignored entreaties in the past. Despite the growing pressure for development – resulting in more and larger-scale development projects, now extending also to high-rise constructions – the Occupational Health and Safety Authority still evidently struggles to fulfil its remit.

In September 2016, the National Audit Office had expressed reservations on the OHSA’s practice of not carrying out exhaustive inspection visits on construction sites.

This concern was further compounded by the fact that there is no rigid and comprehensive system to assess the competence of project supervisors assigned to make sure health and safety rules are observed. The NAO’s statistical analysis tested the number of hours worked, weather variables and age of workers, to study the effects they had on the risk of an occupational accident within the construction industry.

The results concluded that ‘slack regulation’ and ‘a cultural disregard to occupational health and safety’ accounted for a staggering 68.5% of workplace accidents. Unsurprisingly, the report identified workers engaged in the local construction industry as the most at risk of suffering occupational accidents when compared to others working in other industrial sectors.

The NAO also acknowledged external factors, including legal constraints and the considerable presence of irregular workers within this industry, that were creating a regulatory conundrum which is not easily overcome. The construction sector still seems to rely on a disproportionately high proportion of unregistered, ‘clandestine’ workers – overwhelmingly foreigners from impoverished countries/backgrounds – in a clear bid to (illegally) cut costs.

That the same industry would also expose these already-exploited people to such harrowing risks is clearly unacceptable. Our failure to rein in this sector is therefore also an example of ‘impunity’: it is not just the construction lobby, but the country as a whole that – culturally – still attaches a higher price-tag to profits, than to human life.

Faced with this latest fatality, we must make the effort to subvert those flawed priorities once and for all.

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