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Workers dying at Chinese sites rise

Workers at Karuma Dam construction site.

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The human cost of accidents, poor health and safety conditions under Chinese contractors in Uganda has come under scrutiny and what is emerging is raising serious concerns.

At the heart of the latest concerns is Sinohydro; the contractor for the 600 MegaWatt (MW) Karuma hydropower project, where an investigation by The Independent has unearthed details of deaths and accidents that are a result of unsafe working conditions.

Some of the revelations are contained in several correspondences between the contractor, Chinese company Sinohydro and the project supervisor for the Uganda government, Energy Infratech. They are backed by accounts from workers and insiders. All paint a troubling picture.

These correspondences show that in some instances, workers have been hit by flying debris, the contractor has under-reported the number of accidents, the sanitary conditions are terrible and workers are being exposed to live wires carrying high-voltage power, among others.

A health and safety expert with knowledge about Karuma who refused to speak on the record, said that in some instances over 30 cases of serious accidents have been recorded at the dam in a month. Some accidents result in death. Most are preventable.

Take the case of Rogers Twine whose body was smashed on Sept.23. At about 05:45, Twine was working inside the tunnels at the Karuma when a blasting happened. Twine was hit by flying stones and debris from the blasting.

A Chinese blasting supervisor had apparently ordered the blasting to take place without alerting Twine as required under standard operating procedures, sources knowledgeable about the incident said.

Officials at the national power generating sector overseer, the Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited (UEGCL), at a meeting with Energy Ministry officials expressed concerns at the rate of deaths at Karuma.

The Sinohydro Executive President for East Africa and Southern Africa, Wang Yantao, faced a barrage of questions regarding the poor health and safety conditions at Karuma in November.

Wang Yantao who was visiting the site promised that conditions would improve.

In a presentation seen by The Independent, UEGCL officials expressed concern that eight people had before June this year died at the dam site.

In another case, a worker reportedly fell off a Sinohydro project truck and lost almost all his teeth. He was rushed to Gulu Independent Hospital in serious condition. But when a team of investigators went there, they were told that he was quickly taken to an unknown place.

This incident is cited to show that as the number of casualties rises, Sinohydro appears to have resorted to hiding evidence of some cases. A visit to Gulu Independent Hospital when some of the casualties are usually admitted showed that the contractor has not declared certain injured persons.

When on Sept.09, officials visited the hospital, there were three such cases. One of them, Aguma Safri, Ocaya Gensis, and Isabirye Safiq who had been injured during tunnel excavation. But they were taken to the hospital without their cases being recorded.

Concerned about the incidents, Energy Infratech officials wrote to Sinohydro.

“We have also identified gaps in your incident and accident reporting procedures, characterised by coached reporting of witnesses, and concealing of information resulting to non-reporting,” one of Energy Infratech’s letters notes, “we are seriously concerned as to how there is serious mismanagement of safety management procedures on site. Owing to this state of affairs, we find you violating the Occupational Health and Safety Act.”

In brief, Section 13 of the Act states that an employer has a duty to put in place all measures for the protection of his workers and the general public from dangerous aspects of employer’s undertaking.

It also notes that the employer has to provide adequate and appropriate information, instructions, training and supervision necessary to ensure, as reasonably practicable the safety and health of the employees.

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