Things appeared to be going well. Following instructions, he drove the truck onto the bridge. But at 3 pm, workers removed one final bolt from the structure and it collapsed, snapping near the middle. Bissoo, 43, was pinned by the bridge. The lever controls punctured his chest: his clothes and flesh gave way to piercing metal. By 5 pm, the district medical officer pronounced him dead. Grey clouds gathered, rain fell, and the muddy, opaque waters of the Caroni River swelled.
The worksite accident which claimed Bissoo’s life almost exactly two years ago made the headlines in every daily newspaper. Amidst public uproar, the then Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, pledged a swift investigation into the incident, as did his Works and Transport Minister, Colm Imbert, whose ministry had overseen the bridge dismantling exercise. But despite the completion of several reports – by state agencies, by a Government ministry and by a special inquiry set up under the Office of the Prime Minister – the PNM administration failed to make public any findings in relation to Bissoo’s death.
Now, one day before the two-year anniversary of the incident, Sunday Newsday publishes the findings of one investigation into the incident; findings which place responsibility for the bridge’s collapse – and Bissoo’s death – squarely in the hands of the Ministry of Works and Transport (MOWT) which was then headed by Imbert, as well as other Government agencies at the time.
A confidential Occupational Safety and Health Authority (OSHA) report, dated August 22, 2008, which drew upon accounts given by staff at the MOWT and which was in the possession of the State for almost two years as the PNM Government remained silent on the causes of the accident, found that the MOWT failed to comply with safety practices and gave instructions to dismantle the bridge on a flawed, untested methodology. Additionally, the report noted that contract documents issued by the Central Tenders Board failed to have adequate safety provisions and that nobody involved in the exercise had proper training for it.
The findings – that the State was guilty of unsafe practices at the worksite – come amidst what some have described as an alarming trend of increased workplace accidents. According to official statistics not released to the public but obtained by Sunday Newsday, worksite accidents throughout the country have more than doubled, from a recorded 448 in 2000 to 1065 in 2008. Worksite accident fatalities, like Bissoo’s, have increased, averaging six a year.
On August 2, 2008, Bissoo, a father of two employed by S Jagmohan and Sons Limited, was not supposed to be at the site of the dismantling of the Caroni Bailey bridge. He was involved in another project at another site and received instructions – apparently at short notice – to operate the Hiab truck during the dismantling exercise.
Bissoo had nine years experience as a truck driver. But tellingly, he was originally employed as a water-truck driver. His employers said he had undocumented competence in operating a Hiab truck and was assigned to be the truck’s driver and hydraulic arm operator.
At two o’clock on that Saturday in 2008, as rain clouds gathered at the site of the bridge, Bissoo was instructed by a MOWT official to drive the Nissan Truck onto the bridge in order to remove large iron panels from across the bottom of the same bridge. He complied. The panels were placed on the truck.
At the same time, another truck was also on the southern side of the bridge, as other workers dismantled crucial bolts that held the panels of the bridge together and placed those same bolts onto the second truck. Thus, all the weight remained on the bridge, despite the decrease in structural integrity brought on by the exercise. For a while, despite the precarious arrangement, things progressed smoothly. But one last bolt refused to budge.
According to the OSHA report, the bolt, on the north-western side of the bridge, gave trouble: “it was very difficult to dislodge.” Shortly before 3 pm it was finally removed. But then, the entire bridge collapsed like a deadly pack of cards.
“The bridge collapsed at approximately 60 feet from the northern side, buckling to the west,” OSHA found. “This occurred shortly after the last bolt positioned at ten feet from the north – connecting the outer panel to the transom on the western side – was removed.
“At the time of the collapse, Bissoo was in the process of supporting the first twenty feet of panels on the north western side with the truck crane while the workers were removing the last bolt up to a distance of 70 feet on the bridge.
“The bridge collapsed at approximately 60 feet from the northern side, causing the truck to skid forward and to the western side of the collapsed bridge, pinning Bissoo between the truck crane lever controls and the western inner panel of the bridge. The chest of Bissoo was punctured by the lever controls and he was pronounced dead at approximately 5pm.”
OSHA investigators provided a minute analysis of the methodology used by the MOWT to dismantle the bridge – a method which was not subject to a standard risk assessment; was untested and apparently not suited to the model of Bailey bridge being dismantled. OSHA concluded that this method developed by the MOWT directly caused the accident.
“The direct cause of the accident was the reduced capacity and excessive stress induced on the bridge by the removal of key structural elements at the northern section of the bridge. The method of dismantling used by the MOWT was developed by MOWT Bridges Engineers and was never used on double panel Bailey bridges prior to the accident.”
“The method used resulted in the structural integrity of the bridge being weakened as a result of 70 feet of panels on the eastern and western side being unbolted from the transoms and the Z braces on both sides also being removed. Additionally, the weight of the panels was left on the bridge as they were not removed immediately after being unbolted and two trucks with bridge parts on their tray were left on the weakened bridge.”
Other factors which OSHA said contributed to the accident, included: “the lack of a safe system of work such as a risk assessment or method statement.”
“This was not done for the dismantling project at the time of the accident or for similar projects in the past. The procedure used for Bailey bridge assembly and dismantling was not documented and a pre-task safety briefing with all workers involved in the project (a standard practice) was not done. Additionally, there was no sequence of activities documented or used for dismantling of the double panel Bailey bridge.”
Of note to OSHA was the fact that nobody involved in the dismantling exercise for the double Bailey bridge, supervised by MOWT officials, appeared to be properly trained for the task: “most of the workers on the dismantling project had no prior training in single panel Bailey bridge assembly or dismantling and none of the workers, including the persons in charge, had training in double panel Bailey bridge assembly or dismantling. None of the workers on the dismantling project, including the Bridges Supervisor, Bridges Engineer and Chief Bridges Engineer, had prior experience in dismantling a 160-foot double Bailey bridge.”
These findings were in contrast to a release, issued by the MOWT one day after the incident which claimed: “preliminary reports indicate that the crew employed to dismantle this bridge has been trained to do so by a British firm, and further, approximately 50 bridges of a similar nature have been dismantled without a single incident to date.”
This was, perhaps, one example of a misleading statement amidst a sea of subterfuge and evasion over the incident which would unfold over years under the PNM. Despite promises, no report into the incident was ever released.
Finally, OSHA also lamented the fact that Bissoo’s employers had been issued a contract, dated June 26, 2008, to do work on an “as when required basis” yet, “the contract documents issued by the Central Tenders Board and the MOWT to S Jagmoham and Sons Limited did not outline any safety and health issues or execution plan. Additionally, the invoice (order) from MOWT to S. Jagmohan and Sons Limited did not make a request for an operator with required competence needed to operate the hiab and work on the dismantling project.”
There have been no OSHA charges in relation to the incident, probably because of the legal hitches which snared OSHA’s early days of operation, sources said this month. Now, under the provisions of the OSH Act, any charges would be statute-barred because too much time has passed.
To date, it is unclear whether lessons are being learnt from accidents like the one that killed Bissoo. Such accidents are normally subject to confidential OSHA and Government reports which are rarely made public.
In fact, mere months after Bissoo’s death, another worker, Rohan Maharaj, died at a Bailey bridge at Macoya after a ten-wheeler truck, en route to collect aggregate, crashed into the bridge. At a press briefing at the Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Centre on November 5, 2009, Imbert called on Maharaj’s estate to pay the State $500,000 in damages for damage done to the bridge.
“The poor driver is no longer with us but in law, the owner of the truck is liable,” Imbert, now an Opposition MP, said then. In contrast, the State is yet to pay damages for the death of Bissoo.
Bissoo would have been 45 this year had he lived. His family, still reeling from his death and the failure of the State to account for it, declined to be interviewed for this story.
But for them, and for workers all over the country who are placed at risk, the fatal tragedy – suppressed and silenced by the State for so long – will not stop flowing.