The following twelve men won’t be at the World Cup in Brazil: Fabio Hamilton da Cruz, Fabio Luiz Pereira, Ronaldo Oliveira dos Santos, Jose Antonio da Silva Nascimento, Marcleudo de Melo Ferreira, Muhammad Ali Maciel Afonso, Jose Afonso Rodrigues de Oliveira, Antônio José Pita Martins, Raimundo Nonato Lima da Costa, Abel de Oliveira, Carlos de Jesus and Aracida de Silva Bernandes. It’s not that their country failed to qualify like Scotland. It’s not that they weren’t selected to play like Ashley Cole, watching it from home with regrets and “what ifs.” Nor have they missed out through injury like Kyle Walker. No these men are dead – died bringing us what they call the “Greatest Show on Earth.” Before we go on to enjoy the spectacle we fans should just bow our heads for a moment; because I doubt the players will, or FIFA officials. It makes Shankley’s often misquoted words: “Someone said to me ‘To you football is a matter of life or death!’ and I said ‘Listen, it's more important than that,’ ” sound so crass. It is only a game and it is tragic and wrong that lost lives are in the debit column.
Let’s be clear, these deaths were preventable, probably even the two from heart-attacks (given the exhausting 18 hour days, Sunday to Sunday work patterns and the known association between heart disease and overwork). Every one of these deaths is blood on FIFA’s hands and no amount of polishing of that trophy will remove those stains. These deaths are not acts of God, bad luck or just things that are to be expected in a large construction project; they are caused by FIFA’s complacency.
These deaths include three at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, “the Itaquerão,” where Brazil play Croatia in the opening match. Two died when a huge crane collapsed in November last year killing the two workers but also causing massive damage and setting the whole project back. If you have not seen the video you should watch it and remember it when Brazil and Croatia strut out on the 12th June. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djwuAXHxit4 (Note that is over 2000 tonnes of collapsing crane plus load, not a bit of Meccano.)
The official investigation has not concluded and could well become mired in political and corporate blame-shifting. Independent crane safety specialists have, however, commented on what they have seen and read so far. This is what we believe to have occurred: the crane was travelling over rain-soaked ground with a 420 tonne suspended load when it appears the ground gave way under the tracks due to the load (possibly increased by snagging) not being spread over a wide enough area by the use of the correct steel or hardwood mats under the tracks. The crane itself was a ‘top-of-the-range’ piece of equipment. Its only known fault was the data logger (like an aircraft black box) having been inoperable for over a year (though that in itself is cause for concern and should have meant the crane was taken out of use until fixed). It was quite simply an unsafe system of work and a badly planned lift. The crane is supplied with sophisticated software to allow lifts to be planned and for all the calculations to be made – these must have been ignored or not properly used. There are even suggestions from one of the trade unions that warnings were given about the ground conditions in advance. Incident investigation usually shows that there are several contributory factors to any incident like this. It is very likely that there were serious underlying management failings.
The other death at the Arena Corinthians happened in March this year when a man died in an 8 metre fall when installing seats. It is reported that he detached his safety harness to complete a “quick task” – so let’s blame the individual then. No. The culture and planning are to blame – if the culture is set and reinforced, if rules are laid down and training done properly, there would be no need to detach harnesses as safe access would be possible without removing it. There should be no time pressures or personal incentives to cut corners.
At the Arena de Amazonia where England play their first match 4 people have died; one from a heart attack, two from falls from height and one from being struck on the head whilst dismantling a crane.
The death at the Brasilia National stadium was a fall from 30 metres; the one at Minas Arena, Belo Horizonte was from a heart attack, and an electrician died from an electric shock at the Cuiaba stadium in May whilst installing communications equipment. At training venues one man died when part of the stand collapsed and another died from electric shock when installing lighting.
Each of these deaths was preventable through:
- careful planning: defining the expectations of the whole project up front in order to fix a positive culture
- good communications with contractors and workers
- training and instruction
- meaningful engagement with workers and their representatives (the right to associate through unions being vital)
- stable employment so that workers don’t feel their jobs are under threat if they raise legitimate health and safety concerns
- banning of the sub-contracting of labour which leads to devolving of responsibility and a ‘chinese whispers’ situation on communication and commitment
- strong inspection and enforcement.
All of these things were in place for the London 2012 Olympics: and that was delivered on time, to budget and without a single death. In 2006, I was at an event where I challenged the Olympic Delivery Authority Head of Health and Safety – I said 2012 could easily lead to 5 or 6 deaths unless there was a strong incentive to comply with health and safety law. I can’t claim credit for all the measures that were subsequently put in place but thank goodness my worst fears weren’t realised.
Some will argue that you can’t expect Western European levels of safety compliance to apply in other parts of the world. Yes you can. It is purely an attitude of mind – it does not cost more to do it right. If anything it costs less: look at the pictures of the Arena Corinthians collapse to see how many millions of dollars were wasted alongside the lives of two men. It is also patronising to suggest that non-European countries are somehow not capable of the levels of management sophistication required. Odebrecht Infrastructure, responsible for the Arena Corinthians project is a huge multinational, as is Andrade Guttierez in charge of the Manaus project.
Where have things gone wrong in Brazil? The bid including so many host cities was probably over-ambitious, and project management has been poor in terms of timescales: meaning a last minute rush. There are reasonable levels of unionisation in Brazil but labour relations have been problematic and mired in disputes – in fact the whole World Cup has caused unrest and resentment at the vast profits being made by some, shored up by billions of tax-payer investment, which people feel should have been directed elsewhere: just another symptom of Brazil’s vast gaps in wealth distribution. Safety has not been at the core of the project and the responsibility for that lies at the top. People do not usually fall from height and cranes do not collapse unless there have been failings at a senior level. Safety culture is set at the top: that means not just the construction company bosses, it means Government and it means FIFA: they have the power to change this: if they have a will.
It is too late for these twelve men killed bringing us the 2014 World Cup but FIFA could put it right in future if it wanted: if it accepted past errors, studied the lessons learnt from London 2012 and ensured that those hosting future World Cups applied them. Further, they should make sure that the health and safety of workers is at the top of their list of bid criteria, rather than just playing lip service to it and issuing hollow words of condolence to families. It seems unlikely that FIFA will respond positively: they seem incapable of understanding the underlying problems. Secretary General of FIFA Jerome Valcke said in 2013: “I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup. When you have a strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin, can do in 2018…that is easier for us organisers than a country such as Germany… where you have to negotiate at different levels.” This runs directly counter to the sort of open, honest, participative culture needed to plan and run a project safely.
Things don’t bode well for the future. Two people died bringing us South Africa 2010. Russia’s record is not good: Sochi claimed 60 lives or more according to the trade union federation Building and Wood Workers International. Already 5 people have died in Russia (that we know of) on the 2018 World Cup project. Qatar 2022 looks set to put all of these into the shade. A form of modern day slavery operates in Qatar where migrant workers are held captive by their employers by a system known as kafala – working conditions are so appalling that there are estimates that more people will die during the construction of the venues than will play in them. That is just too shocking to contemplate – I for one don’t want to watch a World Cup built on the bones and blood of workers. We fans have a duty to change things. How bad have things got to get before we reject FIFA’s “product” and say “not in my name.”