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How labour department put lives at risk

By Terry Bell

 

For nearly seven years, the Department of Labour (DoL) withheld information that could have imperiled the lives of many members of the public, campaigning lawyer Richard Spoor maintains. His comments come after the release last week of the long-delayed report on the horrific fire at the Paarl Print works in 2009.

 

The report makes clear that the fire that began in the canteen spread rapidly throughout the plant because of the ceiling panel insulation material, a “sandwich” of laminated polystyrene that is used widely around the country. Although such panels are possibly safe if they are 25mm thick and properly installed, the 40mm panels, such as those used at Paarl Print, pose a fire hazard.

 

However, the report does indicate that such panels could be used in “large industrial type buildings like warehouses, and factories”, but where “adequate means of escape to the outside and sufficient smoke ventilation are provided”.

 

Thirteen employees died when fire engulfed the Paarl works on April 17, 2009.  In a court application to establish details of the fire, Nicholas Henwood, director of the Industrial Health Resources Group of the University of Cape Town, noted:  “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.”

 

Henwood recorded that the same roof insulation was involved in a warehouse fire at the Duncan Dock in Cape Town in 1993. “It was ignited by a stray firework set off in the harbour,” he said.

 

Paarl Print management also felt that the ceiling material, Kulite, was responsible, but the plant was fully insured, so it was left to the insurance company to take action to establish responsibility and perhaps recoup the insurance payout. Speaking on behalf of  law firm Hogan Lovells, attorney Warren Beech, confirmed that the case was still underway.

 

But what held everything up was the refusal by the DoL to release its report on the causes and progress of the fire. This was in line with department policy although, as Spoor notes: “There is no reason for these reports not to be released”. No inquests into the causes of the deaths were also held.

 

By not releasing such reports, campaigners complain that action cannot be taken to prevent similar incidents occurring. Material, already discovered to be hazardous, could continue to be installed, so posing a threat to even more people.

 

Spoor points out that the release of the Paarl fire report is only one of many to which lawyers, trade unions and family members have been trying for years to gain access. There are hopes now that reports about such tragic incidents as the Secunda fire of 1997 and the poisonings and furnace eruptions at Assamang and Highveld Steel in 2007 will now become public.

The Paarl fire report will also probably feature in the ongoing high court action by the insurance company attempting to recoup payments from those responsible for the production and installation of the ceiling panels. The architects who designed the building that was gutted have already submitted a statement revealing that they had recommended the use of another type of ceiling insulation.

 

Article published with the kind courtesy of www.fin24.com

 

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