Investigation into Italian rail worker deaths reveals ignored warnings, 2 persons prosecuted for homicide

Flowers in front of Brandizzo station where 5 railway workers were killed in the night of 30 August Marco Alpozzi/LaPresse/Shutterstock

In the days following the disastrous accident in Italy where five contracted railway workers were killed by an empty train, more and more details of the investigation come out, and point to severe compliance with safety measures by people involved with managing the track replacement works. Both an employee of infrastructure manager RFI and a foreman of contractor Sigifer are being prosecuted for multiple homicides. 

The investigations on the rail tragedy are ongoing, and two people are being investigated in particular for multiple homicides and train wrecks with possible wilful misconduct. The first is the foreman of contractor Sigifer Andrea Girardin Gibin, who was present at the accident and managed to dodge the approaching train that killed his colleagues by jumping to the side.

Also under scrutiny is Antonio Massa, who was also at the site as the RFI representative among the contracted workers. In a video filmed that night, which has been published by Italian media, you see the Brandizzo station in the background, and allegedly Antonio Massa is heard off screen saying: “When the train arrives I will let you know and you will stand aside”. The video was saved on the Instagram of the youngest victim, who was just 22 years old, but not yet posted, and was found by a relative who had access to his passwords.

“Said three times: the work should not have started”

A key witness was the manager of the control room in Chivasso, which oversees train movements in the area. It appears from the investigation that they warned that trains could still pass. In front of the prosecutors, the manager repeated: “I have said it three times, the work should not have started because a train was scheduled to pass”, according to Italian media. Also, a safety step was skipped:  a written exchange of forms to confirm line interruption should have taken place.

The public prosecutors are in possession of several phone calls between Massa and the control room, which ordered “not to proceed with the work” reaffirmed in two conversations that follow one another. Then, the crash could be heard live on the phone.

Also heard by the public prosecutors was Antonio Veneziano, who spent two years working for Sigifer. According to him, he saw on the company’s construction sites that “Maybe the last train still had to arrive, but we said ok, in the meantime let’s start undocking some Pandrols, some bolts”. The Pandrol is a large metal clip that hooks the base of the rail to the fixing plate already mounted on the sleeper. According to media reports, the investigators said this is what the five victims were doing before midnight on August 30: “They had already begun to unbolt”.

In the mass of paper documents and computer material, there is one aspect on which the investigators are concentrating: the e-mails between Sigifer and Rfi and all the e-mail messages (internal and external), relating to the Brandizzo site, the operations to be carried out and their scheduling.

Unions warnings went unheard

Several rail and transport unions went on strike the day after the accident, to [express solidarity]. In a meeting with the infrastructure manager, RFI accepted the trade union’s request to transfer the economic withholdings made to workers participating in the strike to a fund that will serve to offer financial support to the families of the five deceased workers.

“We talk about digitisation, artificial intelligence and yet, in 2023, 5 workers died in a tragic accident. We must invest in new technologies to ensure that the safety of workers is safeguarded”, says Italian union Uiltrasporti. According to the union, they have “long been calling” for a review of work organisation by infrastructure manager RFI.

“There are many issues and serious problems that even after this massacre cannot fail to come to the surface. Issues that have already been addressed by the trade unions and repeatedly presented to the government, including in our CGIL, CISL and UIL unitary platform”, says the union. According to them, at contracts and sub-contracts, “profit wins at the expense of the safety of the people working because work has to be done in a hurry to deliver the work on time, sometimes even ahead of schedule even without adequate safety measures”.

Unions took to the streets for a march called 'at the demonstration "No more deaths at work!" in Vercelli
Unions took to the streets for a march called “No more deaths at work!” in Vercelli

Was it ‘common practice’?

A silent procession by the transport unions was held starting at the Vercelli station. There, the general secretary of the CGIL, Maurizio Landini said: “It’s time to create a national security prosecutor’s office and bring together the people who have the skills, we need to invest in labour and safety inspectorates. The government realizes that it is necessary to open serious discussion tables. Companies should address this situation starting with large groups such as Fs and Anas”, reports Il Messagero.

In an interview with Il Diario Del Lavoro,  general secretary of the CGIL transport union Stefano Malorgio, said that “Maintenance work on infrastructure has a very high risk. Unfortunately, the numbers tell you that. That is why we need a safety culture. What worries us, also on the basis of complaints from our members who are now retired, is that the working practices seen at Brandizzo are consolidated and widespread.”

Indeed, the investigators are looking for evidence to demonstrate that the “practice” of starting work before the release of the written authorisation to be able to start the works, was not infrequent. If this is proven, RFI and Sigifer as a company will also risk being investigated.

Author: Esther Geerts


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