Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency(ANA)
Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency(ANA)

Unions seek answers after deaths of trapped workers

By Gift Tlou Time of article published Feb 18, 2021

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GAUTENG - UNIONS of the three dead employees at ArcelorMittal's Vanderbijlpark operation are seeking answers as to how the workers lost their lives.

This comes after the workers were trapped when the building they were in collapsed following an explosion on Wednesday morning.

ArcelorMittal has been subject to a backlash after allegations surfaced that the company was dragging its feet with searching for the employees.

On Wednesday, the company said a portion of a 90m stack at one of the operation’s coke batteries failed in the early hours of the morning and fell onto the coke battery control room in which the three employees were working.

The company was accused of risking the lives of employees as they had to go and try to retrieve workers from under the collapsed building.

However, ArcelorMittal spokesperson Tami Didiza said that certain employees who work within the coke battery volunteered their services to assist in cleaning the rubble once the area had been made safe.

“Time was of the essence in the search-and-rescue operation, and the assistance was greatly appreciated.”

Didiza said ArcelorMittal South Africa’s own qualified, experienced and specialised emergency services were on site immediately following the incident and remained on site to lead the search-and-rescue operations, working throughout the day and into the night until all the bodies had been recovered.

Didiza would not give a clear indication of when investigations would be concluded.

“We have launched an investigation into the accident and we are also co-operating with the authorities in their inquiries so it’s difficult to put an exact timeline on completion.”

Yesterday families of the dead workers were locked in a meeting with the company’s management throughout the day.

“The families returned to site again this morning where they are engaging with ArcelorMittal South Africa’s human resources department on arrangements for the deceased and any other support that may be required, including counselling,” Didiza said.

In a statement , Willie Venter, deputy general secretary for the Metal and Engineering sector at Solidarity, said this was the third incident of its kind at ArcelorMittal Vanderbijlpark plant during the past 12 months.

“It casts suspicion on the integrity of the buildings and structures of this aged plant. It is clearly not safe, and a proper investigation must be launched. We cannot have it that more incidents occur and that the lives of more employees are endangered.”

According to Solidarity, ArcelorMittal’s management must conduct a risk analysis to determine the underlying causes that give rise to these incidents.

“ArcelorMittal must accept responsibility and should not limit its investigation to a single incident but should endeavour to get to the bottom of all similar events and must address it. Tragedies such as this one must be prevented at all costs.”

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) called for an immediate investigation into the death of workers.

“The NUM is highly shocked and very saddened by the death of these three workers. We would like to firstly express our deepest condolences to their families and fellow workers at ArcelorMittal.”

The union said it remained concerned and worried about the safety of workers at the plant, as it appeared to them that the health and safety of workers at ArcelorMittal remained “a pipe dream” and was not prioritised.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has called on the Department of Employment and Labour to intervene.

“We have a long painful history with ArcelorMittal and its brutal management which has demonstrated time and time again that black lives do not matter. This is the same management which previously dismissed a Numsa shop steward for exposing poor health and safety protocols in the company.”

The union expressed its deepest condolences to the family and friends of those who had died.

The Star

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