Methane leak deaths bring back Turkey’s work safety concerns

Methane leak deaths bring back Turkey’s work safety concerns

Rescue teams are seen at the accident scene in the Milas district of Muğla where seven workers died last week after being exposed to methane gas at a sewage plant. (Photo: İHA)

June 23, 2013, Sunday/ 13:02:00/ E. BARIŞ ALTINTAŞ

Seven workers died last week after being exposed to methane gas at a sewage plant in the Milas district of Muğla province, in a tragic accident that has highlighted a perceived lack of unwillingness on the part of the government to improve Turkey’s work accident records.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security launched an investigation into the accident, which took place at a treatment plant in the Güllük region of Milas. Seven workers who were sent to examine gas levels at the sewage plant were reportedly overcome by gas and fell into the sewage. Six died at the scene while a seventh was taken to Milas State Hospital, where he subsequently died.

The victims of the deadly incident were Mustafa Öztürk, Yüksel Kum, Özcan Özkan, Fikret Özdemir, Hasan Özgör, Mevlüt Özbakır and Serkan Miral. According to initial reports, the hydrogen sulfide and methane gas levels in the facility were three times higher than acceptable limits, but work safety experts Sunday’s Zaman talked to said it was too early to establish the role of negligence in the incident or whether any standard measures, such as for measuring methane, had been skipped. However, initial reports claim that no safety measures had been taken at the plant prior to the workers’ access to the methane-contaminated area. There were reportedly no gas detectors or even gas masks for workers, and no risk analysis report had been conducted. The investigation is expected to be completed within a month.

A group of Güllük residents hung banners near the plant, blaming management of the municipal plant for causing the deaths. But Turkish unions say there is a deeper reason behind workplace accidents.

Serkan Öngel from the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions (DİSK) said the possible cause of the methane link was being investigated by work safety groups but said several factors contribute to a higher rate of work accidents in Turkey. “In general, working conditions in Turkey are very tough. The average workweek is 12 to 13 hours more than the EU average, which is 41. It is 53 hours in Turkey, and this is significant.” He said the Turkish averages also fall behind significantly in terms of other rights such as the number of days of paid vacation. This general disregard for worker health and safety is the reason behind work accidents, according to Öngel.

He said the use of subcontractors is another major factor that leads to a higher frequency of work accidents. “We call these work murders. Subcontractor companies are often hired by corporations as a way to avoid work safety inspections. Work safety laws and regulations are not applied in the system. The labor minister himself expressed this some time ago, saying the subcontracting system is like a system of slavery. He also said a number of companies hiring subcontractors are public companies.”

Öngel said court rulings against corporations violating work safety laws are often overlooked and outright ignored.

Özcan Karabulut from the Confederation of Turkish Labor Unions (Türk-İş) also said it would be too early to comment on the exact cause of the methane gas leak. “But it has deeply disappointed us,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. “Five workers die every day -- this is official data,” he said, adding that his union deeply regretted a recently announced delay in improving work safety regulations.

According to a statement from the Labor and Social Security Ministry last Wednesday, new legislation making it mandatory to employ work safety experts is being delayed for a year and making it mandatory to employ a doctor at the workplace is being delayed for two years. The legislation was due to go into effect on June 30, prior to the ministry’s announcement. Many workplaces complained that they haven’t had enough time to employ work safety experts, although Karabulut says they were given adequate time.

“Delaying it for another year or two is unacceptable. It was bringing new responsibilities to workplaces. They had enough time, and they should have been prepared.”

According to data released by the Labor and Social Security Ministry earlier this year, 172 work accidents happen daily in Turkey, four of which on average are fatal. Ministry officials say both workers and employers are now given work safety education to minimize accidents.

The ministry estimates the total annual cost of work accidents in Turkey at TL 7.7 billion. According to data released by the Eskişehir Work Development Center (ESİŞGEM) in May of this year, one worker dies every six hours in work accidents in Turkey, in keeping with the ministry’s data of four work-related deaths a day on average.

Data indicates that the highest number of fatal work accidents in Turkey occurs in the construction sector. In 2012, 278 construction workers died, 89 people died in the agriculture and forestry sectors, 83 in the energy sector and 80 workers in mine accidents and collapses. Statistics indicate that the highest number of work accidents occurs in İstanbul, followed by other industrial cities such as İzmir, Ankara, Adana, Konya, Bursa and Gaziantep.

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