ThyssenKrupp bosses on trial over fire deaths in Italy

16th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

The head of ThyssenKrupp's Italian division is charged with voluntary homicide, a first in Italy for a workplace accident, and faces 21 years in prison if convicted.

Turin -- Six ThyssenKrupp managers went on trial Thursday for the deaths of seven employees in a 2007 accident at the German steelmaker's Turin plant that highlighted Italy's poor workplace safety record.

Relatives of the victims wearing T-shirts emblazoned with their images took their places in the courtroom packed with some 200 people, as a small group of ThyssenKrupp unionists staged a demonstration outside.

The head of ThyssenKrupp's Italian division, Harald Espenhahn, is charged with voluntary homicide, a first in Italy for a workplace accident, and faces 21 years in prison if convicted.

Five other officials, Gerald Prigneitz, Marco Pucci, Daniele Moroni, Giuseppe Salerno and Cosimo Cafueri, are accused of manslaughter.

Only Salerno and Cafueri were present as the trial opened.

In one of the worst industrial accidents in recent years, the seven workers died from severe burns suffered when an explosion sparked a fire at the plant's thermal treatment department.

One died in the fire on December 6, 2007, while the other six died of their burns over the three weeks following the blaze, which triggered a huge emotional outpouring in Italy.

Three of them were 26 years old.

The mother of Roberto Scola, 32, who died in the accident said the victims' families wanted "our sons to be remembered, not because they were burned alive but because they died at work in a way that should never have happened in a developed country."

Noting that ThyssenKrupp had decided to close the factory before the accident, she charged: "After they decided to close it, there was no more safety, they stopped doing the necessary maintenance.

"Seven families have been destroyed."

About 100 witnesses will be called in the trial, which opened two-and-a-half hours late because three jurors were replaced after they gave interviews to the Italian press, presiding Judge Maria Iannibelli explained.

The accident prompted tighter health and safety legislation in Italy, where workplace accidents are more frequent than in any other of the six founding nations of the European Union.

Last June, ThyssenKrupp reached an agreement with the families of the victims to pay damages totalling 14 million euros (18 million dollars), an average of two million euros per family.

The company is named in the trial as a legal entity, and is liable to pay punitive damages in addition.

Workers at the plant described slack safety measures to investigators.

The fire was reportedly sparked when a burst pipe spilled oil onto molten steel. Workers told the media the plant's fire extinguishers were empty and the emergency telephone was not working.

The judge accepted prosecutors' assertions that ThyssenKrupp was aware of the risk of a fire at the Turin plant.

Thousands of people staged a protest a few days after the accident, and sole survivor Antonio Boccuzzi won election to parliament last April as a member of the centre-left Democratic Party.

Boccuzzi, now 35, recalled in a telephone interview with AFP: "After the big explosion, the flames were so high that I couldn't see my seven colleagues anymore. I couldn't do anything."

The opening hearing, which was dominated by procedural issues, closed later on Thursday afternoon. The next hearing was scheduled for January 22.

According to the latest available figures from the European statistical institute Eurostat, Italy recorded 2.6 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2005, compared with 2.0 in France and 1.8 in Germany.

Workplace-related deaths are nevertheless declining in Italy, with 1,207 deaths in 2007 compared with 1,400 in 2002.

Mathieu Gorse/AFP/Expatica

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