EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Skanska managers found guilty of work environment crime

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In January 2002, a Swedish court found two deputy managers at the Skanska construction firm guilty of breaching work environment legislation, and imposed fines on them and on Skanska. The case arose from a major poisoning incident in the construction of a tunnel at Hallandsåsen, causing injury to many workers and environmental damage.

wouldOn 18 January 2002, two deputy managers employed at the building company Skanska were found guilt of violating the Swedish Work Environment Act (Arbetsmiljölagen 1977:1160) and punished in line with the Criminal Code (Brottsbalken) by the District Court in Helsingborg (Helsingsborgs tingsrätt, Ängelholmsavdelningen), in the south of Sweden.

The Court found that the two managers were responsible of 'punishable negligence' in the handling of a lining compound known as Rhoca Gil, and thereby causing toxic injuries to workers inside a tunnel at Hallandsåsen between March 1997 and early autumn 1997. The managers were fined SEK 54,000 and SEK 30,000 under the terms to the Criminal Code and one of them, who was seen as bearing more responsibility, was also given a conditional prison sentence (ie he will not have to serve this sentence). Skanska itself was given the maximum possible 'company fine' (företagsbot), of SEK 3 million. The Court stated in its judgment (mål nr 3971-01) that nobody at Skanska seemed to have had any deep knowledge of toxicology, and that the company's deficiencies - ie the absence of this competence - were remarkable. According to the Court, Skanska had not taken adequate means to prevent the crimes.

Background

In January 1996, an agreement was concluded between the Swedish National Rail Administration (Banverket) and Skanska, whereby the latter would build two single-line rail tunnels through Hallandsåsen, a ridge in the southwest of Sweden. As much of the bedrock was cracked and large volumes of water ran out on the southern slope, major lining work was required in the tunnel. This requirement was clear in 1990 when the project was initiated, and Skanska was aware of these facts.

In January 1997, the management at Skanska heard of (and later decided to buy) the lining compound Rhoca Gil, which was produced by Rhône-Poulenc, the French-based chemicals company (now part of Aventis). In March 1997, a small amount of Rhoca Gil - which is made up by mixing two solutions, one of them containing the poisonous substance acrylamid - was injected, as a test, into the rock at the Hallandsåsen tunnel. A few weeks later some of the workers at site complained of nausea, dizziness and prickling sensations in their fingers. The air in the tunnel was very acrid but, although many people noticed this, nothing was done. In July 1997, the compound was used at full scale. In September, dead fish was found in the rivers near Hallandsåsen, and on 29 September three cows were found paralysed after drinking water from a river. Skanska had tests carried out both on the air and on the water.

On 30 September 1997, the use of Rhoca Gil was stopped, and work in the tunnel was stopped fully on 7 October (SE9812128N). Then, 223 workers were immediately tested at the University Hospital in Lund. They all had various symptoms of acrylamid poisoning. After further tests in 1998, it became clear that 22 workers had received injuries to their peripheral nervous system. Two of these workers still had health problems 12 months after their exposure to Rhoca Gil ended. None of the workers had been wearing a full protective suit with a face guard, but only overalls and boots, as they were instructed.

The case

In the court case, statements were given by 19 tunnel workers who had had some kind of contact with the compound or with the water in the tunnel. They all stated that they had had symptoms such as prickling sensations in the limbs, cramp, headache, irritation in the eyes, nausea and dizziness. They stated that they had all been informed by a representative from Rhoca Gil's manufacturer that the compound was neither dangerous nor poisonous; 'whisky or salt' is more poisonous, she had allegedly told them. The information was given in an oral briefing, and no written material was handed out.

The defendants, the two Skanska deputy managers, stated at the trial that as soon as the tests of the water confirmed the presence of acrylamid, the project was stopped. They admitted that, with the knowledge that they had today, it could be stated that the most dangerous part of the work was the handling of the poisonous solution. Inside Skanska there was no expert available who could have provided information about Rhoca Gil, and there had been no discussion about a possible consultation from an outside expert. According to the Swedish representative of Rhoca Gil's manufacturer, the compound is not poisonous after the mixing of the two solutions. There had apparently been something wrong with the polymerisation process at Hallandsåsen, with the result that the two solutions did not combine in the way they should.

The relevant legislation

According to the Work Environment Act, the main responsibility for the work environment lies with the employer, which must take all measures and precautions needed to prevent the exposure of employees to the risk of ill health and accidents at work. Facilities, as well as machinery, tools, safety equipment and other technical devices, must be kept in a good state of repair.

Persons intentionally or negligently failing to comply with an injunction or prohibition issued to them may be fined or sentenced to imprisonment for a maximum of one year (Chapter 8, section 2 of the Act). According to the Criminal Code, employers which are negligent with regard to their obligation to prevent ill-health and accidents are guilty of a 'work environment crime' (arbetsmiljöbrott) (under law 1991: 679).

As mentioned above, Skanska was given a 'company fine' of SEK 3 million, the maximum amount allowed by the the law (Brottsbalken, Ch.36, section 7). A 'company fine' (företagsbot) is a fine for a crime committed by a company, public authority or organisation. If these organisations commit acts which are criminal in the sense that the management has seriously neglected the organisation's obligations, the courts may impose such a company fine. The same may occur if the company's owner has not performed the actions that would have been demanded in order to prevent the crime (under law 1986:118).

Two further trials

In June 2001, the managing director of the former Rhône-Poulenc Sweden- representing also the current Rhodia Sweden- was found guilty of breaching the Chemical Products Act (Lagen om kemiska produkter, SFS 1985:426) by providing insufficient information in connection with the use of Rhoca Gilat Hallandsåsen. The product information about Rhoca Gil did not contain any information about the risks of injuries to the peripheral nervous system.

A third trial following the events at Hallandsåsen has been preliminarily set for May 2002. This concerns the National Rail Administration and three of its managers who were allegedly responsible for lowering the water level inside Hallandsåsen below the officially decided level. The three representatives are being prosecuted for breaching the Water Act and risk being fined. The National Rail Administration may receive a company fine.

In March 1999, Skanska had paid about SEK 30 million in setting claims, outside court, to the 22 workers with the worst injuries and to farmers living around Hallandsåsen (SE9905162N).

Commentary

The Swedish work environment legislation has been accused of being 'toothless', in that few cases are taken to the courts with, for example, few cases related to accidental deaths in the workplace being tried. It is said that the rules make it difficult to prove anyone's guilt. The law also permits individual settlements whereby the employer pays a sum to the employee concerned without interference from the legal authorities. Another line of criticism is that public prosecutors are not sufficiently educated in work environment legislation, and therefore do not prioritise these cases.

The case of the acrylamid poison injuring workers at Hallandsåsen and leaking out of the tunnel and into rivers nearby was an exceptional one. Skanska is a well-reputed company. It had and has ambitious work environment plans and quality plans for its construction works, a fact which was acknowledged by the Court. However, the series of 'sins of omission' in the Hallandsåsen case led the Court to impose the highest possible company fine. (Annika Berg, Arbetslivsinstitutet)

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