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Last Updated: Sunday, 14 October 2007, 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK
'White deaths': Italy's secret shame
By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

Although Graziella Marota, from the small central Italian town of Ascoli Piceno, may have told the story of how her son was killed many times, the pain never dulls.

A man at work on a scaffold in Italy
Italy has one of Europe's highest rates of workplace accidents

On Sunday, Italy's National Day for Work Victims, she will be speaking out once more about the plague of deaths that has been called "worse than a war" by the country's respected independent research institute, Eurispes.

Last year, 23-year-old Andrea died barely an hour into his early morning shift, working in a factory producing washing machine parts.

"He left at 03:45 to be at work in time for the start of his shift, at 05:00. He had to drive for 60 miles to get to the factory," Mrs Marota told the BBC News website.

"The machine he was working on broke down just after 06:00. He put it on standby and reached in to clean the plate, as he had seen his co-workers do.

"But the machine started again by itself. He died straight away. His neck snapped and his skull was crushed by the 15-tonne plate."


Eurispes calculates that more people died at their workplace in Italy between 2003 and 2006 than among coalition troops on the battlefield during the same period of the second Gulf War.

Italians compare it to a plague, labelling the casualties "white deaths".

"The level of workplace deaths is intolerable, the number of incidents completely disproportionate," Antonio Montagnino, the Italian government's Under-Secretary for Work, told the BBC News website.

"That report confirmed our concerns about the situation."

According to Eurispes, an average of 1,376 people die each year in industrial or workplace accidents in Italy.

Most accidents occur within the agriculture, construction, industry and transport sectors and in the northern regions of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, Italy's northern industrial heartland.

Highest number of deaths/sector
A British worker on a UK building site
Source: Eurispes
According to a 2005 report by to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Italy has an annual fatality rate of 6.9 per 100,000 workers, the second highest of the 15 member states within the study.

The rate - calculated by dividing the number who die at work by the number of employed - is also far higher than the rates in both France (3.0) and the UK (0.8).

"Already so far this year, 700 people have died in workplace incidents. That's about four people per day," Pietro Mercandelli, President of the National Association for the Injured at Work (Anmil) told the BBC News website.

"If we continue at this rate then, sadly, by the end of the year more people will have died than 2006," he said.

A 32-year-old man died just last week during an explosion at a small arms factory on the outskirts of the capital. He was the latest visible victim of a trend conditioned by Italy's lack of a health and safety culture, poor training and education on safety issues, and lax enforcement of existing regulation.

His death prompted a four-hour protest strike by workers at the plant the following day.

Mr Mercandelli says that often small and medium-sized Italian firms simply are not willing to invest the resources in ensuring good health and safety at work.

Increasingly, short contracts and high levels of unemployment mean that workers do not feel confident about pointing out dangerous practices at work or asserting their rights to be protected, he said.

Stiffer sanctions

"These workers do the most dangerous jobs - in mines, factories, processing plants, building sites. These are where most accidents occur."

Many are immigrant workers, originating mainly in Romania, Albania and the former Yugoslavia, who often enter via the country's porous coastline and are willing to accept lower wages and riskier conditions.

A man in a hard hat in the Italian city of Genoa (file)
Many Italian contracts are sub-contracted to smaller firms

The death toll among them is particularly high - they account for some 11% of those who died between 2002 and 2006, according to the Eurispes study, even though they account for less than 5% of Italy's population.

The vast majority of accidents - some 70% - involve workers falling from scaffolding on building sites. Driving agricultural tractors and articulated lorries also have high death rates.

Workers who are injured rarely officially report accidents for fear of losing their jobs.

When they do, they often cover up for their employer, claiming they lack the correct paperwork because it is their first day on the job.

On a deeper level, experts agree that the higher rates are intrinsically linked to Italy's vast underground black and criminal economy.

Black market battle

"There is a big problem with illegal working and a series of cascading contracts," Mr Mercandelli said.

"A huge contract, for example, won by a large firm is split into smaller sub-contracts, which are awarded to smaller firms, who, in turn, split the jobs into even smaller sub-contracts. At each step the worker is less protected."

The Italian government agrees: "Wherever there is illegality, the rights of workers are not respected. Wherever there is criminality, human dignity takes second place," said Mr Montagnino.

"We are fighting the black market, it is a battle for safety at work."

He points to a recent move by parliament to bring together what he calls the country's sometimes "obsolete and contradictory" legislation within a single system.

An extra 1,400 workplace safety inspectors have been taken on this year, he adds, and a further 300 will begin work in 2008.

But all this is too late for Mrs Marota, whose personal experience of justice has proved frustrating.

She insists that as well as preventing accidents before they happen, stiffer sanctions must be rigorously applied afterwards.

"Even justice is denied to me," she said. "It is absurd that someone can go to work and die. These workers are abandoned, no-one protects them."

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