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!