Next time I’ll know better! – On why I will no longer report illegalities to the Occupational Health and Safety Authority

If you’d come across Malta for the first time, you would not be blamed thinking that the much prophesied apocalypse had come to roost here. From the snaking monster of cars that clogs the arteries of our roads, to towering cranes and the ‘development’ that invariably accompanies it… dangerous dragons all, belching fumes of dust that maim the lungs and kill the will to live.

Of late, of course, that thing that goes around came around and suddenly, we’re all talking about the massive danger to civilian life that unbridled construction has become. A few homes neighbouring building sites fell down. The amazing thing is that more haven’t fallen down, and one wonders how many will fall down of their own free will over the years, their foundations undermined in such a way that the danger is latent rater than immediate.

I have lived through three major building sites around my flat. I am asthmatic and suffer massively from headaches. The incredible noise, the dust, the shaking foundations, the persistent dirt that washes over a neighbourhood were building is going on, the street blockage, the inconvenience. All of that and more. But what actually affected me much more than anything else (well, maybe except for the noise of the digger!) was the total disrespect for health and safety that the workers at the building site across the way from me had. They straddled planks balancing precariously on sacks of cement, four or five floors up. They inhaled dust from the stone cutting and planing machines that surely must have lead to permanent calcification of their lungs. They wore no helmets, no harnesses, no protective shoes. They often wore no clothes at all, except for skimpy shorts that covered modesty but did little else.

I was expecting a fatal accident to happen at any moment, and a couple of times I just couldn’t take it! Took photos and sent them off to the Occupational Health and Safety Authority, who would duly acknowledge receipt of my mail and actually send inspectors. And work would stop for a day, and the following day the workers had helmets and harnesses. And the day following that, the harnesses would still be on, but they’d have dangling ropes, unconnected and as useless as a damp squib! And then the helmets would disappear as well. So on and so forth. Until my hackles went up so high I had to contact the OHSA again.

This happened a few times while the huge block was being erected. And people moved in and the workers disappeared. None died, as far as I know, but it wasn’t from lack of their trying.

And then, a few months ago, I got a police summons that I was called as witness against the contractors. Three separate summons, but all for the same morning. It was a bad time… exam time at University. I had to cancel meetings that had been planned for weeks, but grumblingly thought it was my duty to see this through. A citizen should stand up in the face of the rampant illegalities that are around us. Even more if those illegalities can cost lives through the neglect, or just plain stinginess, of contractors.

So I was in court at the appointed time of 9.00 am. It was difficult for someone who had never been to court to find the actual hall… there were none listed on the summons, and the notice boards were only populated about half an hour after the appointed time. And there is no-one official around to ask. It looked like a non-violent melee, a free for all, with people obviously knowing each other chatting away, and the newbie trying to find his way.

Someone knew, and I was pointed to a closed door around which milled a lot of people. When the notice was eventually put up, I saw that there were dozens of cases for that same hall and same magistrate, all for that morning. So I waited to be called.

Nothing happened. At one point I thought I heard one of the contractors against whom I was a witness being called in, but not the two others, and no-one called me in the meantime, so I thought I’d imagined it.

At just after 11.00 am, a police sergeant stuck his head out of the hall door and asked for those whose case had not yet been called. I tentatively told him what I was there for. He looked through his list. “Ah,” said. “That case was adjourned!” And the other two, I asked? “Oh, they could not serve the summons to those two!” he calmly said. So what do I do, I asked, trying to hold back the anger that nearly choked me at that point. “Oh, you’ll have to come back,” he said with a smile, and gave me a date… this time slam bang in the last week of semester, when it’s impossible to postpone classes.

I fumed out. Wrote to the OHSA and told them off! Not their fault. It’s the court system being what it is. But I still had to go when called, or else I’d be fined for contempt!

And I was summoned. Only just, as I’d just got home from abroad. It seems people do not travel. They just wait in their homes waiting for policemen to deliver summons.

Again, I was there at 9.00. Again I waited. Again I wasn’t called. But the two cases I had been summoned for were. An hour or so later. And they must have left through the back door, because another case was called. I tried to talk to the policeman who was calling cases, but he indicated he was busy. I waited another half an hour then collared him the moment his head came out for the next call. Oh, he said. Both cases were adjourned. For a time when I’ll definitely be abroad.

And I fumed out again. And decided that being a good citizen is not worth it after all. And that the next time I see someone about to die as they  do a sprightly dance in mid-air on planks hanging from threads, I’ll turn my head away and not let the overwhelming need to save them make me have to contend with a court system that has no respect for citizens doing their duty.

Most definitely. Next time I’ll know better!

The Soundtrack to my Life


The massive tower crane across the street hums incessantly. Rising and falling like a siren that whistles and screams, as the metal at the end of its cables clatters and scrapes along the roof of the monster block being built right in front of my windows.

They’ve already started tiling the lower floors. There’s the whine of the chaser they cut the tiles with, screaming like a demented banshee. Stopping and starting. Incessantly.

The workers shout at each other across the block. They’re directing the guy who has just brought a truck full of sand, and the high-up arm on the truck clatters and grinds its way up to one of the storeys, while workers shovel sand noisily into the bucket, the crunch of the shovel not lost, but providing a backdrop to the shouted instructions that seem never-ending.

There’s the persistent loud clippity-clopp of the machine that smooths the stone blocks before they’re laid. It’s left on all the time, in between the sharp wail and screech it makes when each block of stone is passed through it. Then the clippity-clopp returns, accompanied by the clanking of the large chisel used to pat the blocks in place on the cement.

Ah, the jackhammer down the street is at it again. The workers must have broken for lunch. It’s back now, full tilt. Easily the most horrendous noise in existence, vibrating my mind and thoughts with its jiggedy-jig, loud and head-shattering. They must have found some other two-storey house to knock down and transform into a charmless monolith of concrete. It will soon be followed by the horrendous clackity-clack of the earth digger. Those were horrible months, those were, just before the building started on the monstrosity across the way. What fun to look forward to.

One of the neighbours’ daughter’s boyfriend, in his souped up Escort Mark 2 has come to collect her again. The growl of the engine gives him away. It’s left on, of course, as he sits on the horn to call her out. The horn is a loud parp. Pressed twenty times (I counted) before her shrill voice, presumably from a window, tells him she’s coming.

They’re playing the radio full on in the block being built behind us. I know when the workers turn up at half past six in the morning. That’s when the radio is switched on. And it stays on till they leave around five in the afternoon. They must be ready to roof one of the floors. There’s an awful crashing of metal on stone. The net to be used? Possibly. They’re using an angle grinder, that drones, then screeches loudly as it cuts through the steel. Feels like a stiletto of sound, sharp and pointed, piercing my ear drums.

Ah, the neighbour’s daughter did not stay true to her promise to come down. It’s the parp-parp-parp of the Escort’s (undoubtedly customized) horn again. OK. Only fifteen times this time. Her shrill voice silences it. She screams at him. He shouts back, and swears to high heaven, and slams the door of the car. No, the doors. OK, he seems to be slamming doors instead of sitting on the horn, venting his frustration at her tardiness.

A rather large woman who drives a tiny Subaru and has five young kids (all packed into it whenever I see them) has just arrived. She has a voice that would shame the roar of a bull being taunted in Pampalona. And the kids, it seems, who whine and cry and scream and shout and argue loudly, can do no right. She bawls at them, and slams the doors of her Subaru (what is it with slamming doors in frustration in my street?). Good, they’re moving away, the roar of their interaction slowly fading and being drowned out now by the hum of the high-up arm, lifting up the bucket of sand as the scraping shovel perpares more for when it lands.

The sudden elevated growl of the Escort signals the arrival of the prodigal girlfriend, and for nearly a minute it masks the sound of the tower crane and the stone machine, though not the chaser and the angle grinder. Nor the jackhammer. Nothing masks the jackhammer.

They’re hammering next door, and drilling. Both sounds compete with each other, but the drilling actually wins. I get the impression of a meters high drill, twisting holes out of tiny walls. The whir is massive and drones for long minutes. It stops for seconds at a time, but then the hammering (must be more than one hammer… has to be…) takes over with gusto. Occassionaly there’s a symphony, the drill providing the wind and string instruments, and the hammer the percussion. The composer, though, must have been insane and produced a discordant overture to madness.

Oh, it’s the front door neighbour’s son. I had not seen him for the first few years I lived here. But I recognised him from his voice. A fog-horn of a voice, but with the edge of nails scraping on a blackboard. I have only ever heard him shouting and swearing at the top of his lungs. I’ve never heard him laugh, nor have I heard him speak softly (I very much doubt he can). He is shouting at his mother to open the door. He has rung the doorbell twice, and is now impatient to go in. Ah, he’s kicking the door now. And the voice again. Rasping like a bad actor’s in a horror movie. When once I caught a glimpse of him, his bulk fit right in with his voice. Most of it was round the tummy, true, but the chest from where the fog-horn emanated was wide and barrel-like, and might even, with training, turn up the decibels one day. I worry about earthquakes if that were to be the case. Good. She’s let him in. And he’s giving her a lashing of his tongue (it’s a rasping roar that reverberates and echoes till it fades in the innards of the house).

Good lord, it’s Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up” blaring from the street. High. Incredibly high. Let’s see what my phone app says. Hmm… it’s fluctuating between 102 and 107 decibels. And I’m five floors up. Must be as high as a jet-engine where it’s coming from. But who…? A quick look out the window. A 1990’s BMW across the way with its front doors open. Its owner has a blue bucket and a chamois and sponge. He must have decided he wanted entertainment as he washed his car. Oh, he’s opened the back doors. Rick Astley’s heavenly voice gives me hell. I close all windows, my double glazing knocking ten or so decibels off the din.

But the jackhammer is magic. It’s jiggedy-jig seems to cut right through double glazing and creates a soundtrack to life.

My life…