Mounting Accidents in Russia

Renfrey Clarke

WHEN A COUNTRY stops renewing its industry and infrastructure, production does not simply wind down in uneventful fashion. Owners and managers who cannot afford to replace worn-out machinery often cannot afford to shut it down either. Instead, they cross their fingers and keep it going. Sooner or later, it breaks. And when it breaks, it very often kills or maims people.

This is the situation that has now made Russia one of the most accident-prone countries on earth. As a share of Russian gross domestic product, the sums spent on renewing fixed capital were reported recently to have fallen by sixty percent since 1992. Of the basic stock of machinery and equipment, close to fifty percent has now exceeded its anticipated life span. Accordingly, the rate of accidents and disasters is soaring.

The main victims are workers, as is shown by figures for job-related deaths and injuries that are among the worst in Europe. But the lives of huge numbers of other Russian citizens are also at risk, and the environmental implications are horrifying.

Last July the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted a rapid increase in the statistics for especially serious accidents. On average, there are now two such accidents each day in Russia’s gas and oil pipeline system, one per week in transport, and one per month in industry. Among the causes, the paper noted are not just the continued use of worn-out equipment, but also the increasing habit of “economizing” on safety.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the greatest potential for catastrophe is not in the aging, leaky installations of Russia’s nuclear power complex — now operating at far below capacity due to problems with indebtedness — but in the chemical industry. Concentrated in the main centers of this industry are stocks of dangerous substances amounting to 100 billion lethal doses, enough to kill everyone on earth twenty times over. In fifteen installations in the city of Dzerzhinsk, there are 20,000 tons of highly toxic substances; a major leak here would put 300,000 people in acute danger.

Meanwhile, three quarters of the equipment of Russia’s chemical industry has been in service for more than twenty years, and a good deal of it dates back to the 1950s. On the average every day there are four “incidents,” involving leaks, explosion or fires.

Leaks in the gas and oil pipeline system do not usually take human lives, though a gas explosion in the Kazakh city of Leninsk recently demolished an apartment block and killed twenty people. But the cost to the environment of frequent oil spills from cracked and corroded pipes is becoming incalculable. A tenth of Russia’s pipeline network has now been in service for more than thirty-five years, even though pipes ten years younger than this are considered unreliable. Production of steel pipes, meanwhile, has fallen drastically in recent years.

In the field of transport, wide international publicity has been given to the dangers of air travel in Russia. The number of people killed in air crashes per million passenger journeys in 1993 was ten times the figure in 1987.

Competition in the Workplace

Trusting in competition to improve air services, the Russian government in the past few years has encouraged the splitting of former monopolist Aeroflot into nearly 300 new airlines. Responding to market pressures, the new managers have abandoned many of Aeroflot’s “very pedantic” maintenance procedures. controls on factors such as aircraft weight loadings have become haphazard. “Pilots do not know how much cargo and how many passengers they are flying because of under-the-table agreements made by ground staff,” a leader of the Pilots’ Union was quoted recently as complaining.

Less well known are the sharply increased dangers of travelling or working on Russia’s railways. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the railways in 1993 saw more than 3250 “incidents,” including major disasters. This figure was almost three times the total in 1992.

Most of the carnage in the new Russian economy, however, has not been the result of “disasters” but of “minor” workplace accidents, each of which kills or mutilates one or a few workers. Such accidents are now almost routine in many industries. According to Labor Ministry figures quoted by Izvestiya last July, in 1993 there were 7600 work-related deaths in Russia — an average of twenty-one a day — while 13,800 workers were permanently injured. In relation to the workforce, the rate of industrial accidents was two-and-a-half times the U.S. figure, and seven times that in Japan.

In 1994, Izvestiya reported, the casualty rate has climbed still further, reaching about thirty deaths and fifty permanent injuries per day. The toll in privatized enterprises is around twice that in their state-owned counterparts. “This is due basically to the contempt for job safety and safety equipment that reigns in the private sector,” the paper observed.

Another cause of the high accident rate in Russian industry is the widespread practice of linking wages closely to output, giving financially pressed workers an incentive to ignore or sabotage safety provisions. This method of payment is used even in the inherently dangerous conditions of underground coal mining.

According to the findings of investigative commissions, one of the main causes of mine disasters has been “stopping instruments without permission and blocking testing equipment.” After one recent disaster, a sensor designed to detect explosive methane gas was found to have been wrapped in a sack. Miners are now being driven to take more and more such risks as a result of a steep decline in their real wages.

Coal miners in Russia are also at risk from increasingly worn-out machinery, and from the inability of mines to pay for safety devices. A trade union study cited in April 1994 by the English-language Moscow Times found that the number of accidents per volume of extracted coal rose by fifty-eight percent between 1990-93. In the latter year, there were 343 deaths. Between 1988-93, a total of 1720 miners were killed in Russian coal mines, compared with a death toll in U.S. mines over the same period of 219.

For the Russian state, forced to pay most of the costs of death and accident compensation and environmental clean-ups, taking a complacent attitude toward industrial safety is short-sighted and self-defeating. But this has not stopped the government from implementing the cuts in state investment that to a large degree are at the heart of the problem.

In the areas of job safety and industrial renewal, the interests of workers and environmentalists in Russia converge. There is an obvious need for them to join in building political campaigns around these issues.

ATC 56, May-June 1995