In February 2023, tragic events occurred globally, including a train collision in Greece, a toxic derailment in Ohio, and numerous deaths due to collapsed buildings in Turkey. Those impacted by these disasters share a sense of injustice and are calling for reforms within the government and regulatory entities they hold accountable. The common thread observed by the affected populations is a focus on reducing expenses, prioritizing profits, and disregarding the rights of workers and civilian safety.
After a month of tragic events worldwide, those who are mourning the loss of their loved ones and feeling uncertain about the future are questioning who should be held responsible. The residents of Turkey and Syria witnessed buildings collapsing around them, while people in East Palestine, Ohio, now fear the quality of the air they breathe. In Greece, the devastating news of a train collision that claimed many lives shocked the nation. Although these disasters occurred in different parts of Europe, Asia, and North America, they share a common factor: they could have been prevented, at least to a large extent. In each affected country, people have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with what they perceive as governmental and regulatory failures. They attribute these tragedies to a desire for profit and the associated cost-cutting measures.
Greece’s infrastructure has been neglected and its equipment is outdated.
In the Thessaly region of Greece, a collision occurred between a passenger train and a freight train last month. This unfortunate incident led to the loss of at least 57 lives, including numerous young students. The Greek population, especially the youth who had lost their fellow students, became extremely angry and expressed a strong sense of solidarity with those they believe were victims of government failures.
As soon as the news reached the public, protests erupted, with people accusing the officials and the center-right government of being responsible and calling them “murderers.” The metro and rail workers, represented by their unions, promptly initiated a strike to express their frustration. They felt that years of indifference and neglect towards their industry had led to this problem being placed on their shoulders.
Those who want to divert attention from the government’s accountability argue that the tragedy occurred due to human error, as evidenced by the arrest of the stationmaster in charge of the affected railroad section on the night of the collision. However, according to the unions, the individuals involved were not given a fair opportunity to operate safely. Vassilis Samaras, the stationmaster, shares this perspective, as stated by his lawyer. They believe that they bear some responsibility, but they were working under challenging circumstances. Samaras was the sole staff member responsible for the region as his colleagues had already left, and they had to deal with a signaling system that was barely functional.
Protesters and unions have called the government out on staff shortages, outdated equipment and underfunded infrastructure, with the overarching problem of cost-cutting at every opportunity. One such protester, Stelios Dormarazoglou, explained how he understood the disaster:
It is widely recognized that if the Greek government had desired, this incident could have been avoided. My son personally contributed to enhancing the signaling system nearly a decade ago. However, progress has been halted since then due to companies prioritizing profits over other considerations.
The Greek president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, has made a commitment to modernize the Greek railway system and implement automated safety systems. However, for numerous Greeks, this effort is considered insufficient and belated.
Ohio’s railroad workers are burdened with excessive workloads.
On February 3, thirty-eight cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train passing through East Palestine – eleven of which were carrying hazardous materials – derailed and ignited into a 48-hour-long blaze. This resulted in toxic and carcinogenic materials being pumped into the air and seeping into the ground and waterways. While people within a one-mile radius were evacuated, this is seen as a feeble response to an environmental disaster which should never have taken place.
Residents of East Palestine and the nearby region have expressed significant health concerns primarily regarding the discharge of vinyl chloride into the surrounding environment. According to reports, this has resulted in the unfortunate death of a large number of fish and animals, including pets belonging to families living up to 10 miles away. Although there were no human casualties directly caused by the derailment, town residents have reported experiencing skin rashes, headaches, and coughs. Consequently, they live in a constant state of anxiety regarding the potential long-term health and environmental impacts of the pollution.
Residents of the area and railroad workers, echoing the claims of individuals in Greece, contend that this tragedy could have been prevented and was caused by insufficient funding, excessive workload, and disregard for safety regulations. Ron Kaminkow, the general secretary of Railroad Workers United, expressed his belief regarding who should be held accountable for this situation.
If there are no improvements in the working conditions, scheduling, time off, or work-life balance, the railroad will inevitably face negative consequences. Insufficient staffing leads to shortcuts and compromises safety.
Between the years 2018 and 2020, the number of railway positions decreased by 40,000. This placed significant pressure on employees who were already burdened with excessive workloads. Additionally, these workers faced the challenge of not receiving any compensation for sick leave, which resulted in them having to choose between working while ill or losing their wages. Furthermore, they could face disciplinary action or even termination for taking time off. The added strain on these workers is particularly disheartening considering that the six major railway corporations in the United States reported a total profit of $22 billion in 2022.
The combination of working while sick, facing penalties for taking time off, dealing with a heavier workload due to staff reductions, and experiencing low morale, creates a harmful situation for railroad workers. As a result, they are unable to perform their job up to the necessary standards. It is clear that this can lead to catastrophic consequences when handling hazardous materials.
Leo McCann, who heads the rail labor division of the transportation trades department, expressed the overall sentiment by stating:
“The primary focus of the railroads lies in maximizing profits and maintaining a high return on investment, while minimizing their figures, in order to meet the expectations of Wall Street. They rely on this protective barrier, hoping to avoid any unforeseen incidents.”
Turkey experiences the crumbling and collapse of structures.
While nothing can be done to prevent the occurrence of an earthquake, the Turkish authorities were not naïve as to the inevitability of such an earthquake taking place. The nation, which straddles the European and Asian continents, is the meeting place of three tectonic plates: the African Plate, the Arabian Plate and the Anatolian Plate. This leaves the area highly vulnerable to severe earthquakes.
85,000 structures crumbled due to the 7.8 earthquake, resulting in nearly 50,000 fatalities and an additional 115,000 injuries in Turkey. Once the initial shock subsided and rescue operations commenced, individuals began questioning the reasons behind certain buildings collapsing while others remained intact, safeguarding those inside.
Several countries, including Japan, faced with a similar issue, implement stringent measures to reduce damage and loss of life. These measures primarily involve enforcing building regulations that mandate contractors to construct earthquake-resistant structures. Turkey also followed this approach until 2019, when the Erdogan government retrospectively legalized numerous buildings that failed to meet earthquake construction standards. Instead of addressing these subpar structures and adhering to regulations for new constructions, owners and contractors were only required to pay a fine to the Turkish government, prioritizing financial gain over the safety of thousands of lives.
Approximately 75,000 structures within the earthquake zone experienced the impact of this legal modification. When the catastrophe occurred, numerous buildings succumbed to the pressure, resulting in individuals inside or nearby becoming trapped, injured, or losing their lives. Turkish engineers and architects had previously cautioned that this relaxation of regulations posed a threat to human lives. Unfortunately, their concerns were disregarded as the focus on economic expansion overshadowed their voices.
The lack of strict regulations and the consequent tragedy are not solely caused by greed for money, but also by a strong desire for political dominance. Erdogan’s ability to win elections is largely attributed to his pledge of creating more employment opportunities and housing for the Turkish population through extensive construction projects. However, numerous citizens did not receive the promised homes due to a focus on maximizing profits and expansion, which led to negligence of regulations and construction standards, resulting in their receiving graves instead.