Sun, Mar 12, 2006 - Page 2 News List

Railway deaths highlight lax safety rules

By Shelley Shan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Tragedy struck early on Friday morning when five railway maintenance workers were hit and killed by an express train while carrying out repair work in Chungte (崇德), Hualien County. One of the workers is believed to have been dragged by the train after being hit.

According to Chen Feng-nan (陳峰男), deputy director-general of Taiwan Railway Administration (TFA), while Liu Shin-ming (劉興民), the leader of the maintenance team, verbally informed the deputy station master of their intention to repair an adaptor on the tracks, he did not file an official application to block that section of the railway.

The workers also failed to set up a whistlepost 500m from the construction site.

Hsu Da-wen (徐達文), the head of Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), has resigned over the accident. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) has also several high-ranking officials responsible for the incident punished.

The families of the five maintenance workers will each receive compensation of NT$7 million (US$215,000) to NT$8 million.

The accident, however, exposed once again the management problems at one of Taiwan's oldest state-run operations.

"TRA has had many occupational accidents over the years," said MOTC minister Kuo Yao-chi (郭瑤琪). "Upon examination, one will find that many were due to lax enforcement of safety regulations, which is very risky."

"The ones who bear responsibility [for the incident] have already left," Kuo said.

According to statistics from the Council of Labor Affairs (CLA), since 2001, occupational hazards at TRA have led to the deaths of 19 employees and injuries to 10 more.

Most of the fatal accidents occurred when workers were doing simple maintenance tasks, such as replacing cables, refilling water on the train and repairing broken level-crossings.

In the wake of these accidents, CLA has offered comprehensive suggestions for TRA to improve its management and execution of safety rules.

"We have found that TRA's management is quite disorganized, which is the cause of many of these accidents," said Fu Huan-jan (傅環然), the director of CLA's department of labor inspection.

"Based on past experience, we believe it would be more effective if we start by working with high-level officials," Fu said.

Fu added that the recommendations will be introduced through a series of seminars for TRA officials. Fu hoped that with TRA's top officials attending, real reforms will be carried out in the company.

Leaders of non-governmental organizations, however, appeared less optimistic.

Huang Hsiao-ling (黃小陵), secretary-general of Taiwan's Association for Victims of Occupational Injuries, said the accident showed that TRA's reporting system is faulty and management has not strictly followed safety procedures.

The five maintenance workers should not be blamed for what happened, she added.

Huang also said that accidents have also occurred in other state-run companies, such as China Steel. This shows that the government has not effectively carried out the nation's labor inspection system.

She also pointed to the fact that a government-appointed inspector has to examine at least 1,000 business units. The heavy workload, she said, has caused many of them to focus only on a few items and, at most, simply ask the businesses to improve within a certain period of time.

Using the Hsuehshan Tunnel (雪山隧道) along the Taipei-Ilan Expressway as an example, Huang said that politicians were demanding that the tunnel be opened for public use even before it had passed safety inspections. This goes to show how these people put their political careers above public safety.

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