Lack of organisation found to have caused work environment scandal

In 1997 the construction of a railway tunnel in southern Sweden was halted, as it turned out that a substance used for sealing the rock was harmful to workers' health and destroyed the groundwater. In November 1998, a governmental commission issued a report criticising almost all the parties involved for failure to fulfil their responsibilities with regard to the work environment. Some of them may now be facing prosecution for criminal offences.

In 1996, the construction of a railway tunnel through the Halland ridge (Hallandsåsen) started. The tunnel was commissioned by the National Railway Administration (Banverket) and, after the original contractors had failed, Skanska AB was the main contractor.

During the entire project there were severe problems with water seeping into the tunnel. To reduce the leaking of groundwater from the ridge, attempts were made to seal the rock surrounding the tunnel by grouting with different types of grouting agent. The grouting agent finally chosen was Rhoca Gil, an agent containing two components: acrylamide and N-methylol acrylamide. Both are toxic and may cause cancer and hereditary genetic disorders. They are soluble in water and relatively easily decomposed in the air. Thus the eco-toxicological effects are mostly of an acute nature.

The components were spread from the tunnel both into surface waters and the groundwater, as they sometimes failed to polymerise. In October 1997, the scandal became public. The leaking substance was shown to have an adverse effect on the nervous systems of the construction workers and had also caused nervous disorders and death among cattle and fish. In addition, it had destroyed the groundwater as a source of drinking water. The work was halted immediately.

A governmental commission was appointed to investigate the matter. In its report completed in November 1998, the commission is very critical, particularly towards Banverket, which is held mainly responsible for the lack of a sound work environment organisation.

The contractor Skanska, which was directly responsible for the workers' health and safety, is criticised for allegedly not handling the highly poisonous Rhoca Gil with better care, and for relying too much on the information given by the manufacturer, Rhône Poulenc. A construction company as big as Skanska should have known better, and should have taken the initiative to consult experts in the field, the commission concludes.

Rhône Poulenc, for its part, is criticised for allegedly withholding information about the toxicity of the substance.

The commission also criticises the local trade unions. They were allegedly too busy quarrelling among themselves as to which of them had the right to conclude collective agreements for the work, and they failed to live up to their responsibility to control the work environment.

The police are now investigating who can be prosecuted for offences against the Work Environment Act.

Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment