No workplace tragedy is an accident
The ugly death of a 26-year-old Libyan worker in towercrane-encircled Sliema has reopened an old wound with an impromptu debate on the issue of real, rather than assumed, security at work, particularly in the construction sector where dangers loom permane
Tragedies like this one always raise a hue and cry, with people quickly thumping their chests in anger, experts playing with statistics, and unions conspicuously flexing their muscles and then, silence. That is, until the next tragedy that sees a young worker die, whatever his nationality, leaving another family of orphans.
This time, the debate took an even nastier turn when someone chose to post the video of the poor worker’s last couple of minutes hopelessly dangling from a loose rope before plunging to his unfortunate death seven storeys below. Some television news followed suit. It was not the first such tragedy and it certainly will not be the last, alas. Not due to the absence of any laws that seek to ensure the safety of people at work, but because of an acute lack of their enforcement. Laws are not neatly filed papers for shelving, but tools for the authorities concerned to use them to protect workers and their families in their everyday search for bread-winning opportunities.
The easiest thing is to accuse the whole construction industry with negligence, but it really is the major symptom of a national malady. We have developed into a careless and selfish society which is not genuinely interested in the common good, and I say this despite the acknowledged generosity of the Maltese people when it comes to supporting charity marathons on TV throughout the whole year. The I’m-alrightf...-you-jack mentality is rampant as we can also distinctly see in our driving, in our ways of celebrating, in our attitude to waste-collection schemes, in our disrespect of the natural and urban environments, and so many other minor and major instances where the public’s cooperation is of the utmost importance.
When it comes to unnecessary loss of life, however, things cannot remain as they are. One needs to recognize that some progress has been achieved even in the construction sector. It is good to see work on building facades being carried out behind scaffolded security screens and the workers involved wearing protection gear, but it does not stop there. How many daily inspections on site are carried out to confirm it is not all a sham? There are laws that specifically dictate everything, from wearing a hard hat to using a safety harness when working from heights, but even the simplest of regulations, such as the hour when work is allowed to start in the morning to avoid inconvenience and early disturbance to neighbours, are blatantly disregarded.
Even as I write, looking out of my studio window, I have seen in the distance construction work loudly getting under way well before the legal 8am starting point. Some people do phone to protest and, hopefully, the authorities intervene, but most of us just put up with it. The same with traffic rules, the disposal of waste etc., etc. It is why one is tempted to understand, if not totally agree, with what the Dean of the Faculty for Social Wellbeing at University, Professor Andrew Azzopardi, said the other day following the horrific Sliema tragedy and the distressing video posted on social media and television news. His retort to claims it showed disrespect to the poor man’s family was that respect should have been shown in the first place by those who could have foreseen the tragedy and avoided it.
One is in two minds over the issue of media exposure. I am totally against airing publicly a horrible death in all its gory details – from the shameful, American-sponsored hanging of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi’s inhumane end in Libya to suicide and traffic victims and, as in this case, the untimely death of a young father at his place of work.
There are other better and even more effective ways with which the people who could have helped avoid it are not only made to face the wrath of justice, but for others like them, including the workers themselves, to take note that this simply can’t go on. No workplace tragedy is an accident and, while it is all so avoidable, they should be made aware theirs is a shared responsibility they cannot shirk.
For a small nation such as ours, it is incredible how many marks we have left on history books over the centuries, but I always find it naively amusing to note the bits and pieces of Maltese that surface every now and then in the most unlikely of places.
For example, I treasure the copy I have inherited – an edition of the Oxford Dictionary which actually features two Maltese words that, for a certain period, actually became part of the English vocabulary. One is “daisa” for dgħajsa, the other “saha” for saħħa – Imperial residue, of course. This memory came back when I saw the front page of the UK Independent the following day of the Brexit agreement in Brussels last week showing 27 yeses in the different languages that make up the EU’s linguistic family. Our “Iva” (see picture) was actually pretty distinctive from the rest. Only last Thursday, the Daily Mail front page featured the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, wearing a Maltese għonnella!
In one of his many Hollywood films, the great Maltese actor, Rabat-born Joseph Calleia, once actually sang a stanza from a traditional Maltese folk melody. His American producers must have been somewhat baffled, to say the least.
A lovely anecdote with a “Maltese” touch to it was recounted to me by a friend recently. It recalls the instance when Pope John Paul II, an avid and skilful chess player, was the intended victim of a joke by two old Polish friends from his University days. They wrote a letter in a popular French chess magazine they knew he read, which they signed as “Pawel Zartobliwy, Maltese, and Michael Rodzaj, Portuguese”. However, surname experts soon revealed that the word “Zartobliwy” in Polish actually means “someone who enjoys making jokes”.