Government prioritises workplace safety after fatal accident at steelworks plant
In December 2007, a fire at the Thyssen Krupp steelworks plant in Turin in northwestern Italy resulted in the deaths of seven workers. Media reports of the incident reflected the deep shock of the public and made workplace safety a national emergency issue, placing it high on the political agenda. The day after the accident, the Turin Prosecutors’ Office opened an investigation and placed the company’s Italian executives on the register of suspects.
High incidence of workplace accidents
In Italy, the total number of workplace accidents amounted to 832,037 accidents in 2007, over 1,000 of which were fatal – according to data from a 2007 report (in Italian) by the National Association of Workplace Accident Victims (Associazione Nazionale Mutilati ed Invalidi sul Lavoro, ANMIL). Despite a slight decrease in the number of accidents compared with the previous year, Italy is still in absolute terms the European country with the largest number of workplace deaths. In addition to these figures, the number of unreported occupational accidents which occur in the ‘hidden’ economy is estimated to be at about 200,000 accidents. From an economic perspective, the cost of occupational accidents and diseases is estimated at around €40 million – equal to the cost of a finance act.
In the light of these facts – and as a result of the European Commission strategy (70Kb PDF) on health and safety at work of 21 February 2007, which set a 20% reduction target in workplace accidents for EU Member States for the period 2007–2012 – the Italian parliament approved Law No. 123/2007 in August 2007. This law introduces immediate measures on health and safety protection in workplaces; at the same time, it requires the government to draw up a consolidated text on the matter.
Restructuring at Thyssen Krupp
On 25 July 2007, an agreement on the dismantlement of the German-owned Thyssen Krupp steelworks plant in Turin in northwestern Italy was signed between the company and the trade unions – the Italian Federation of White and Blue-collar Metalworkers (Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici, Fiom-Cgil), the Italian Metalworkers’ Federation (Federazione Italiana Metalmeccanici, Fim-Cisl) and the Italian Metalworkers’ Union (Unione Italiana Lavoratori Metalmeccanici, Uilm-Uil). The agreement was signed in the presence of the government and provides for the closure of the steelworks plant, which currently employs 385 workers, by September 2008; it also stipulates the transfer of equipment to the company’s steelworks plant in Terni in central Italy – the intention being to turn the latter plant into a European leader in stainless steel production. However, the majority of workers at the Turin plant did not want to move to Terni; as a result, the agreement contained a series of measures, such as use of the extraordinary wages guarantee fund, ‘long mobility’ income support for redundant workers who are close to retirement age and incentives for voluntary resignations.
Details of accident
The fire at the Thyssen Krupp steelworks in Turin broke out during the night shift of 6 December 2007 at the plant’s thermal treatment department. The incident resulted in the immediate death of one worker and severe injuries for a further six workers, all of whom died from severe burns in the subsequent days.
In response, the Turin metalworker unions, Fiom, Fim and Uilm, called for a one-day strike to take place on 10 December 2007, involving a procession in the city of Turin.
Criminal investigation launched
The day after the accident, the Turin Prosecutors’ Office opened an investigation into the accident involving two proceedings: one sought to investigate which persons were criminally liable for the accident; the other aimed to determine the company’s administrative liability. In relation to the first proceeding, the Prosecutors’ Office placed six persons on the register of suspects, including: the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Thyssen Krupp Acciai Speciali Terni, Harald Espenhahn, who was charged with voluntary manslaughter – the most serious of the charges made – and the two Managing Directors, Gerald Priegnitz and Marco Pucci, who were accused of culpable manslaughter. Less serious charges – more specifically, fire without malice forethought and voluntary omission of precaution against accidents – were brought against one of the managers of the Terni plant, Daniele Moroni, the General Manager of the Turin plant, Giuseppe Salerno, and the Head of the risk prevention and protection service at the Turin plant, Cosimo Cafueri.
In addition, Jurgen Hermann Fechter, the legal representative of the Thyssen Krupp Acciai Speciali Terni, investigated as the corporate entity, was questioned to determine the company’s administrative liability.
The investigation was officially concluded on 23 February 2008 after two-and-a-half months’ work. While the results of the inquiry are subject to pre-trial secrecy, unofficial sources have reported a series of shortcomings in the German multinational’s management of safety measures at the plant.
Reactions of social partners
At the time of accident, around 200 employees were still working at the Thyssen Krupp steelworks plant in Turin. According to the trade unions, dismantlement of the equipment and workforce cutbacks, as well as reduced periodic maintenance, were the probable causes of the accident. A spokesperson for the company’s unitary workplace union structure (Rappresentanza sindacale unitaria, RSU) commented: ‘The dismantlement phase ongoing since October has created a difficult situation, starting with the management of shifts. We had reported a number of critical issues to the firm.’
A Thyssen Krupp spokesperson has claimed that: ‘Despite the already foreseen and agreed transfer of the equipment, the reduction of production volumes and the connected cutbacks of personnel, high safety standards have been constantly maintained, as regularly verified by the competent authorities.’
According to the President of the General Confederation of Italian Industry (Confederazione Generale dell’Industria Italiana, Confindustria), Luca Cordero di Montezemolo: ‘More can be done in regard to safety. All Confindustria members should give priority commitment to fair treatment of their employees, favouring professional growth and safeguarding workplace safety.’
The General Secretary of the General Confederation of Italian Workers (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro, Cgil), Guglielmo Epifani, was more outspoken in his criticisms: ‘ThyssenKrupp is not a small firm of minor importance. One wonders whether Confindustria, which continues to declare its desire to work with the trade unions on workplace safety, intends to take action against the company which it represents.’
The accident at the Turin plant has placed the issue of workplace safety back at the top of the political agenda. The government has, in fact, pledged to implement Law 123/2007 as soon as possible, by issuing a decree law on the consolidated text after consultations with the social partners.
The measures envisaged in this decree include the:
- exclusion of atypical workers, for a certain period, from particularly dangerous tasks;
- stepping up of workplace inspections on agreement with the regional administrations;
- strengthening of the role of workforce safety representatives (Rappresentanti dei lavoratori per la sicurezza, RLS);
- distinct and transparent specification of safety costs in contract procurements.
The fall of the Prodi government at the end of January 2008 has hampered the progress in parliament of the decree implementing the consolidated text on safety. Agreement between the social partners is politically desirable for the approval of this decree; however, this does not seem to be forthcoming at present. The role of the RLS represents a particularly contentious issue. According to the trade unions, this role should be reinforced through legislation, more specifically through provisions already contained in the legislative decree. However, employer organisations maintain that any increase in the powers of the RLS, at both company and territorial level, should be decided through collective bargaining.
The government must now issue the legislative decree, which in order to become operative must be scrutinised by the labour committees of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. However, such approval can by no means be taken for granted, given the fall of the current government, which will only formally remain in office until the political elections scheduled for April 2008 take place.
Livio Muratore, Ires Lombardia