Workplace Deaths: "Poison from the heavens"


Here is a story drawn from the book written by Samanta Di Persio, entitled "Morti Bianche" (Workplace Deaths) and available on the blog free of charge.
"I was twenty years old when I lost my father. My youngest brother was 17 at the time and my eldest brother was 23. No one is every prepared for the loss of a parent, especially when you’re still young and above all when the person dies in a violent manner. My father, Domenico Bonan, died only nine months after the doctors discovered a tumour in his lung. In October 1999, after suffering a bout of coughing that had left him breathless, we went to see a doctor, thinking that the problem was merely a bout of bronchitis, however, we were given the terrible news that he had cancer. He was told that he had three months left to live, but if he was prepared to undergo chemotherapy treatment, the pain would have been more bearable and he could even have lived for a little longer. The location of the cancer, which lay between his lungs, meant that it was inoperable. They managed to keep him alive for another six months. In July 2000, he left us at the age of 56 years. From the time that the fulminating cancer was discovered, to the moment of his death, there was no discussion held between we children and our parents regarding what my father was going through. The glances were enough. One of the reasons for this was our character, which is somewhat private and reserved, but the subject was also avoided in order to avoid disturbing the family’s “peace of mind”. We were well aware of what was happening to us as a family, just as we were aware that we were doing everything that could be done. I must also admit that we were hoping that this would turn out to be nothing more than a terrible nightmare.
For almost thirty years, my father had worked in the chrome-plating department of a company called Tricom. A number of his colleagues, around twenty of them, had died before him. Their ailments had all begun in the same manner, namely, some coughing followed by bleeding from the nose. My father thought that he could still get out of there in time. All he would say was: “I can’t wait to go on pension!” He was convinced that by leaving that place he would be safe. However, that was not to be. My father loved to keep busy and he always found something to do in order to keep himself occupied. If I were to blame him for anything in particular it would be that he should have spent more time with us children.
On the day he died, I made a conscious decision to try to find out what went on in that factory. There were far too many evident signs that would lead one to think that: “Something is wrong there”. Even as far as the country in which I Iive is concerned, my father’s death was a “fait accomplis”, after all, he worked for Tricom! I began gathering witness statements from his technical colleagues, asking for tests to be carried out and legal action was instituted with my family acting as plaintiff. I carried out a number of site inspections. I realised that the various departments were not isolated from one another and that this single, large area that housed the packaging department, the chrome plating department, the painting department, the cleaning department, etc. It was perfectly possible for anyone to fall ill because no one wore any gloves or masks and there were no protection systems in place. The company’s management provided nothing of the sort and no one was ever warned about the actual risks to which they would be exposed. Even the purification plant was not working, or rather, it was only operational in the event of an inspection. Not at all surprising when you consider that the same man who had been the town’s mayor for the past twenty five years was also employed at the plant and, therefore, just a few days prior to each inspection, he would see to it that any dirt was simply swept under the carpet. From the testimonies we obtained, it emerged that just prior to these inspections the workers were supplied with masks to protect them against the dust (however, these were inadequate in terms of protecting them against exposure to any chemical substances), the operating temperatures in the tanks would be lowered to the point where no fumes were emitted, the few available suction systems would be switched on and all of the large doors would be opened in order to create some sort of airflow. Nevertheless, the mayor is now also under investigation for crimes relating to multiple cases of culpable homicide, causing grievous bodily harm, failure to apply precautions or protective measures with regard to environmental disasters and workplace accidents. In addition to hexavalent chromium and nickel, chemical analyses also revealed the presence of no less than seven different types of cyanide, lead, sodium carbonate and soda compounds, sulphuric acid, etc. When I saw the working conditions that the workers had been forced to endure simply in order to be able to feed their families, I was well and truly dumbfounded. A continuous mist was rising from the tanks that were being used for chrome plating and the operators were being exposed to this mist for the entire duration of the job. A number of people had complained about burning and streaming eyes and a burning sensation in their stomachs and throats. The panels located on top of the tanks forced the workers to lean out over the edge of the tanks. The tanks themselves were so badly corroded that pieces broke away as soon as they were touched. All this, I repeat, without any form of protection against possible splashes or fluid leaks. A number of witnesses told us that when a work piece came loose inside one of the tanks, the workers were obliged to climb up onto the edge of the tank and remove the offending item using something like a pair of pliers. Furthermore, this operation had to be performed hurriedly so as to prevent any production stoppage. There are even reports of workers having fallen into one of the tanks and I remember my father telling me about it when this happened to him and he then had to come home to wash up and change his clothes.
The entire working area was awash with hexavalent chromium and the workers walked around in the sludge. The cement floor had been eaten away and the toxic substances leeched into the ground beneath, even polluting the underground watercourses. All the former workers’ families remember the strong nauseating smell that used to accompany the workers upon their return to their homes.
Another disturbing element that emerged was the way in which the company disposed of the greenish effluent produced by the plant. Instead of being duly purified prior to disposal, much of the effluent was simply loaded into tanker trucks and dumped around the district. These operations were most probably performed at night since a number of the operators told us about certain tanks being full at night, only to be found to be mysteriously empty the next morning. They thought that the effluent was being dumped into a nearby canal, which also proved to be badly polluted, but actually, the only pipes discharging any liquids into that canal were storm-water drains. In other words, the rainwater running off the roof of the building was impregnated with all of these toxic substances as a result of the lack of any form of scrubbing systems. Unfortunately all of these facts only emerged after the death of a significant number of workers and the pollution of underground water sources by the hexavalent chromium. Apparently a number of inspections had been carried out by the USL (National Health Service) and each time the inspection reports revealed certain shortcomings, but the political backing allowed these to be simply overlooked. Everyone was aware of what was going on, but no one was prepared to speak out. Sufficient to say that the company was only given the official go-ahead in 1983, when it had already been operational since 1975. Town residents recall that the children used to go out and play in the fields, returning home later with their legs stained with green. A male nurse who once tried to report this occurrence was intimidated in an attempt to prevent him from saying anything.
Today, only my family and a few others are continuing to fight for recognition of the injuries that were caused to our loved ones. Unfortunately we have not received much in the line of support, neither from the general public nor from the judges, who are only interested in archiving the case. If all of the families involved would only do their bit, I am sure that there would be no problem in securing a conviction for culpable homicide, but I believe that they are unwilling get involved due for two factors. The first is a lack of faith in the institutions, and the second is total indifference, perhaps liberally laced with fear. Meanwhile, the guilty parties who should be elsewhere, paying the price for the injuries that they have caused to innocent parties, are instead walking around free with their heads held high."
Samanta Di Persio from her book entitled "Morti Bianche".

Posted by Beppe Grillo at 08:44 PM in | Comments (0)
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