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Rio Tinto: question mark over safety record in France

23 December, 2015Serious doubts have been raised over Rio Tinto’s reporting of incidents and worker injuries its Carbone Savoie site in France. 

Local French unions report that since the last week of October 2015, there have been four incidents at the plant, which produces cathodes for the aluminum industry. However, Carbone Savoie’s management appears to have minimized the gravity of the accidents in its reports or hidden them away.

At the beginning of November 2015, a worker suffered facial trauma when a cathode was broken during a loading operation. The worker returned home by his own means without getting any medical advice but needed several days off work to recover.

However, management failed to report the work stoppage or the worker’s injuries, instead classifying the accident as a quasi-incident with a moderate potential outcome.

At the end of November, an employee fell in the steel foundry workshop and again needed several days off work. The accident was not even declared.

During the same period, two further incidents took place. Although no injuries were incurred, they caused serious damage to metal structures at the plant. One of the incidents could have had grave consequences for workers. Unions report that no TapRoot (accident) investigation has been conducted, despite claims by management to the contrary.

“This practice is not restricted to Carbone Savoie. Unions at Rio Tinto in a number of countries have informed IndustriALL that Rio Tinto discourages injury reporting,” says Kemal Özkan, Assistant General Secretary of IndustriALL Global Union.

In October, Rio Tinto expressed its concerns about the increase in the number of safety incidents at Carbone Savoie since the beginning of 2015. In a letter to workers, Rio Tinto claimed that management had taken measures to improve the health and safety situation at Carbone Savoie.

However, the lack of disclosure of correct figures or analysis of the causes of incidents seems in direct contradiction to Rio Tinto’s claim.

All the incidents occurred in an atmosphere of high pressure and anxiety for workers. Rio Tinto Alcan employs hundreds of people in both Notre-Dame-de-Briançon (Savoie) and in Venissieux (Rhône). The disposal of the two operation sites of Carbone Savoie to a French holding company, Alandia, has been made public this week.

Prior to this announcement, workers have been kept in the dark about their future. Trade unions requested information on the ongoing strategic review, as required by law, but management failed to reply.

Since the acquisition of Alcan in 2007, Rio Tinto has initiated a restructuring of its activities in France, with the closure or the disposal of several of its assets. Alcan, which employed 15,000 people in 2007, now has no more than 2,200 employees in France.  In the operations that Rio Tinto still runs in France, the company is increasingly turning to outsourcing. In Dunkerque, Rio Tinto outsourced part of the stock activities and transportation. The company was also planning to outsource some maintenance work but a labour dispute led Rio Tinto to renounce further outsourcing for the time being.

“Occupational health and safety is a rights issue rather than just a technical matter,” says Özkan, “Workers have the right to know and participate in safety matters which doesn’t seem to be the case at Rio Tinto in France. The lack of reporting brings their safety figures into question and risks lives. We call upon Rio Tinto to act properly”.