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

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS -

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.

Mal­tese marks

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”.

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