Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Europe, Headlines, Labour

ICELAND: Dam Proves Fatal for Workers

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Jan 17 2007 (IPS) - The Karahnjukar dam project in the highlands of East Iceland is becoming a dangerous place to work. Since construction began in 2003, there have been four fatal accidents at the site.

The first accident happened on Mar. 15 2004 in Hafrahvammagljufur canyon. Icelander Arni Thor Bjarnason was preparing to bore into rock which would later be blasted when a large piece of rock fell on his shoulder and killed him.

Work in the canyon was stopped for three weeks while the accident was investigated and security measures in and around the canyon were reviewed.

The second fatality came two years later, Mar. 27 2006, in Desjaradalur valley nearby. In this case, worker Eilifur Gopi Hammond was placing explosives into rock in an access tunnel when one of them exploded unexpectedly. He was killed by falling rock.

Within a week, on Apr. 2, another fatality occurred. This time, Ludvik Alfred Halldorsson was working in an excavator in a quarry at the foot of Fremri-Karahnjukar mountain. He was collecting filling material for the Desjararstifla saddle dam (part of Halslon reservoir) when the edge of the road gave way and the vehicle overturned. Ludvik died instantly.

And then came November 25 – a particularly bad day. First, a Croatian man named Kresimir Durinic died in an accident at Fljotsdalsheidi, some distance away from the main site, where transmission lines are being constructed to transmit electrical power from the plant. An insulator toppled from one of the poles and landed on him. He was taken to hospital but declared dead on arrival.

Later in the day, a Chinese worker fell 40-50 metres down the wall of the Karahnjukar dam and landed on a steel reinforcement rod used to support the concrete coat of the dam. He was sent to Reykjavik where he spent weeks attached to a respirator. He is now recovering slowly.

Another major accident occurred Dec. 10, after concrete casing fell on a Chinese man when he was cladding a tunnel. He has become paralysed waist down – and the paralysis is likely to be permanent.

The Italian firm Impregilo is the main contractor for building the dam, but all the fatalities so far have been among men working for sub-contractors Arnarfell, Sudurverk and Landsnet. Each company works on different projects connected with Karahnjukar.

Accidents were particularly frequent during the first few weeks in December. “We have been surprised at the spate of accidents that occurred in December,” publicity officer for Karahnjukar, Sigurdur Arnalds, told IPS. “Some of these, though, can be traced to icy conditions.”

Chief steward at the site Oddur Fridriksson agrees. “Of course I am very concerned. But I am very pleased with Impregilo’s response. There was a first aid safety course just before Christmas for all the workers currently on site. And that raises my hopes.”

Since the course was held, Fridriksson said the accident rate had dropped significantly. One man, however, suffered head injuries when working in a tunnel and ended up on the operating table at a hospital in Reykjavik.

The Morgunbladid newspaper recently quoted Andy Hughes, vice-president of the International Commission on Large Dams, as saying that he had worked on dam projects all over the world and that no one has ever been killed in any of those projects. But Arnalds says that “accident frequency at Karahnjukar is about 30 percent less than the average for development projects that Impregilo operates elsewhere.”

Could the problem be due to language difficulties, as people from over 30 countries work at Karahnjukar? Arnalds says no, but Fridriksson says that language problems may have a large part to play.

Both agree on one thing, though. As Arnalds puts it, “cultural differences pose more of a problem than language difficulties. This comes out as different safety backgrounds. For instance, Chinese workers are not used to playing a role in safety issues.”

Impregilo spokesperson Omar Valdimarsson says that about 500 Chinese people are working at Karahnjukar.

Supervision of the construction site is in the hands of a conglomerate of seven companies called VIJF led by British engineering company Mott Macdonald. They fear that safety procedures are not being followed. Impregilo denies this.

The Association for Occupational Health and Safety has kept track of accidents since the start of the development.

Since construction began, there have been approximately 1,200 accidents at Karahnjukar. “There have been more accidents than usual in November and December,” says Kristinn Tomasson, chief doctor for the association.

“Various theories have been put forward to explain this, but probably the most likely is that safety management is often less stringent as development nears completion. This generally happens everywhere,” he added.

About 1200-1300 people are currently working at Karahnjukar.

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