Despite legislation regarding occupational health and safety, every year a number of employees are killed or injured at their place of work. Late last month, a 26-year-old Libyan plunged to his death after falling seven storeys at a construction site in Sliema.
In the past, there were no such laws, and very often workers were not even aware of their workplace hazards.
One such case was the death of three members of the same family in Għasri. In the past, the village of Għasri was known for the cultivation of clover, an agricultural foodstuff used specifically to feed domesticated livestock. For this reason, clover seeds were stored and Wenzu Mercieca (Ta’ Skardi) was well known on the island for the proper storage of these seeds.
It has been known for a long time that temperature is a factor of vital importance in determining the lifespan of seeds, and that red clover seeds may lose their viability if not stored at low temperature.
Mercieca stored the seeds in a large pit he had dug in his barn in Għasri. From time to time, seeds were brought up from the pit, and on Saturday, September 20, 1845, 34-year-old Santu Mercieca, Wenzu’s elder son, went down the 11,000-cubic-metre pit to collect some seeds.
Stored clover seeds produce carbon monoxide, which when inhaled in significant concentration may cause asphyxia. It was this gas that killed Wenzu and his two brothers, 23-year-old Ġużeppi and 22-year-old Kalanġ. When Wenzu failed to return from the barn, Ġużeppi went to check on him, but he found him unconscious at the bottom of the pit.
In an attempt to save his brother’s life Ġużeppi went down the pit, but he too met his brother’s fate, and both were found dead by Kalanġ. The almost-impossible-to-believe Għasri tragedy continued when Kalanġ died in the same pit. The police report noted that the pit had been closed for two months and the concentration of the gas was very high.
10 killed in harbour tragedy
Thirteen years later Malta experienced one of the worst workplace tragedies. During the first half of the 19th century, steam began to replace wind as a means of propulsion, and warships of the Royal Navy as well as merchant ships entered a new era. Coal was imported from the United Kingdom and stowed on the quays or in other coal storage facilities.
The Peninsular and Oriental Co. (P&O) had their coal storage facilities in Pietà, close to where the Torpedo Depot used to stand. The facility consisted in 10 adjacent roofless warehouses 30 metres in length, 7.6 metres wide and 6.5 metres high. Around 1,200 tons of coal used to be stored in each warehouse. Coal was moved to these warehouses by poorly paid heavers, most of whom were from Żejtun.
On Saturday, July 17, 1858, tragedy struck when about 20 heavers were emptying the coal piled at warehouse no. 8. In those days the only safety requirements for coal stockpiles were to prevent spontaneous combustion. The workers did not realise the danger they were in while clearing the warehouse when the adjacent one – no. 7 – contained about 1,200 tons of coal.
Suddenly, the wall dividing the two warehouses collapsed and some workers were trapped in a huge pile of coal. Luckily not all the workers were in the same area where the wall collapsed, and the rescue operation was begun by the workers who survived the tragedy. Soldiers and sailors were also called to extract the workers; however, too much time had passed, and 10 workers lost their lives.
Suddenly the roof and side walls collapsed, drawing the workers above into the falling timber and burying them all beneath the debris
The victims were Ġużeppi Borg, Ġanni Zammit, Toni Busuttil, Ġużeppi Zammit, Ġużeppi Vella, Franġisk Bonnici, Ġużeppi Bonnici, Salvu Cappello, Ċensu Mifsud and Wenzu Grima. Borg hailed from Msida and all the others from Żejtun.
The magistrate’s inquiry revealed that the dividing walls were not built in compliance with the safety rules. Eventually the warehouses were demolished, and new ones were erected in the Ta’ Xbiex area.
Six killed, 28 hurt at former brewery in Sta Venera
In 1928, Malta suffered a building disaster the dimensions of which the Maltese islands were unaccustomed to. In that year a brewery was being built at Santa Venera by Messrs Portanier. The new factory was designed by Herr Kopt of Munich, Germany, and the architect in charge of the project was Joseph Psaila.
On Tuesday, October 23, at about 2.45pm, while a large boiler weighing about 20 tons was being hauled, the first and second floors of the factory collapsed, killing six and injuring 28 construction workers.
It was reported that the straps tied around the central pillar of the building in order to haul the boiler caused the collapse of the huge building on the far side. At that time a group of workers was working on the roof above and another group was working beneath. Suddendly the roof and side walls collapsed, drawing the workers above into the falling timber and burying all the men beneath the debris.
The rescue operation was begun by the workers who survived the tragedy. A strong contingent of police soon arrived; however, the police were not trained or equipped to handle such a rescue operation. Meanwhile, messages for assistance were sent to the Royal Engineers and the H.M. Dockyard. A captain of the Devon Regiment also telephoned for a company of soldiers to be sent to Santa Venera.
The emergency services raced to extract the dead and injured workers from the wreckage, and mothers and wives of some of the victims witnessed heart-rending scenes. Acting Prime Minister Col. A. Sammut, other ministers and government officials, numerous doctors and a number of priests were early on the scene. At about 8pm the government took charge of the rescue work and the naval and military contingents were withdrawn.
The first identified victims were Carmelo Borg of Birkirkara, Nicola Attard of Qrendi, Pawlu Cuschieri of Ħamrun, and Salvu Borg of Naxxar. The other two victims were Ġużeppi Micallef and Salvatore Borg. The funeral of the six victims was led by the parish priests of the respective localities, family members, workmates, the Commissioner of Police, Francis Portanier and Marquis Scicluna, who eventually bought the factory.
On an initiative of the Daily Malta Chronicle funds were raised for the dependants and other members of the victims’ families. Meanwhile both civil engineers were charged with involuntary homicide; however, Ġużeppi Psaila was not found guilty. Herr Kopf, the German civil engineer, jumped bail and managed to leave Malta while awaiting trial.
Three die in Gzira sewer, another three at Ta’Qali reservoir
Another workplace tragedy occurred on Friday, August 20, 1937, when six workers of the Public Works Department were trapped under the debris while working in the drainage tunnel that was being constructed in the lower part of Bouverie Street, Gżira.
The wooden planks on which the six workers were working collapsed and the workmen fell to the bottom of the tunnel about five metres below. Police personnel as well as other rescuers managed to free some of the workers from under the rubble; however, Zarenu Sammut of Mġarr, and Wenzu Portelli and Ġużeppi Sghendo, both of Gudja, lost their lives. Gżira parish priest Rev. Karlu Manchè gave the last rites to the victims.
Three other Public Works Department workmen, namely Toni Pace of Ħamrun, Manwel Abela of Dingli and J. Vella of St Paul’s Bay, died on Thursday, June 4, 1959, when one of the supporting walls of the water reservoir at Ta’ Qali collapsed, trapping four workmen. One of the workers managed to escape the avalanche of concrete. At that time the reservoir was holding about eight million liters of water.