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Court orders labour dept to disclose accident reports

By Terry Bell


Eighteen years ago, 15 workers at the Sasol Secunda plant were burned 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 and felt they had a right to know.


Over the years where workers have died in the industrial environment the labour ministry has refused access to reports following official investigations into such tragedies. Now, and thanks to a judgment on Friday in the Gauteng Division of the High Court, they and many other relatives and colleagues of workers who died while at work may at last find closure.  


The judgment orders the ministry of labour to make available reports under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) that are written after investigations into fatal industrial incidents.  


One of the grounds that the ministry has advanced for not making the reports available is that they are sent to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to decide on whether there should be any prosecutions.  


As campaigning lawyer Richard Spoor has pointed out, there are seldom any prosecutions. More worrying is the fact that the DPP 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.


Such unexplained tragedies continued to pile up when, in April 2009 a fierce blaze destroyed much of the Paarl Print Works.  


Thirteen workers died and more than ten were injured.  The Industrial Health Resource Group (IHRG) of the University of Cape Town, were particularly concerned about the possibility that a widely used polystyrene roofing insulation might have played a part in the tragedy.


IHRG director Nicholas Henwood 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.”


In a statement, he pointed out that this form of 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 added.


IHRG, the families, and representatives of Cosatu-affiliated unions at the Paarl plant tried for two years to obtain copies of the report into the blaze before being told it had “not yet been finalised”.  And when, in July 2009, the report was finalised, it was sent to the DPP that was “not at liberty to disclose” the contents.


Two more years of frustration followed, including an unsuccessful attempt to gain access to the report using the Promotion of Access to Information Act.  Frustrated, IHRG, together with representatives of nine families, represented by Spoor, Cosatu and two affiliated unions last year took the matter to the high court.  One of the unions involved, the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers' Union, is the union still awaiting the report from the Secunda fire of 1997.


Papers submitted to the court by the applicants also listed examples such as 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.  


All may at last gain at least some inkling of what happened and whether such loss of life and limb could be avoided in future.


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

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