In February 2023, there were unfortunate incidents that occurred worldwide. These included a train collision in Greece, a toxic derailment in Ohio, and numerous casualties due to collapsed buildings in Turkey. The individuals impacted by these disasters share a sense of unfairness and are calling for reforms within the governing bodies and regulatory organizations they perceive as accountable. Amidst the search for accountability, the affected populations notice a recurring pattern: prioritizing cost reduction, pursuing profits, and disregarding the well-being of workers and civilians.

After a month of tragic events worldwide, those who are mourning the loss of loved ones and worrying about the future are questioning who should be held responsible. Observers in Turkey and Syria witnessed buildings collapsing, while residents in East Palestine, Ohio, now fear the quality of their air. Additionally, Greeks woke up to the devastating news of a train crash that claimed numerous lives. Although these disasters occurred in different parts of Europe, Asia, and North America, they share a common element: they could have been prevented, at least to a large extent. In each affected country, citizens have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with government and regulatory shortcomings, attributing the tragedies to a relentless pursuit of profit and 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Greece’s infrastructure has been neglected and its equipment is outdated.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 peers, experienced intense anger and a shared feeling of unity with the victims. They believe that this tragedy was a result of government shortcomings.

As the news spread among the people, protests erupted, with individuals accusing the officials and the center-right government of being responsible and labeling them as “murderers.” In response, metro and rail workers, represented by their unions, promptly initiated a strike to express their frustration. They were angered by the fact 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 ensure safety. Vassilis Samaras, the stationmaster, shares this perspective, as stated by his lawyer. They believe that they bear some responsibility, but were operating under challenging circumstances – Samaras was the only staff member remaining in the region as his colleagues had already left – and with a signaling system that was barely functional.

Photo by Nick Night on Unsplash
Protesters highlight outdated rail infrastructure in the Mediterranean country (Photo: Nick Night / Unsplash)

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:

“If the Greek state had desired, it could have prevented this incident, as it is widely acknowledged. My son personally contributed to the enhancement of the signalling system nearly a decade ago. However, progress has been halted since then due to companies prioritizing profits over other concerns.”

The Greek railway system is set to undergo modernization and the implementation of automated safety systems, as pledged by Katerina Sakellaropoulou, the Greek president. 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 vicinity have expressed significant health concerns primarily due to the discharge of vinyl chloride into the surrounding environment. The release of this chemical has resulted in the unfortunate death of a large number of fish and animals, including family pets located up to 10 miles away. Although there have been no human fatalities directly attributed to the incident, the town’s residents have reported experiencing skin rashes, headaches, and coughs. They also live in constant worry about the potential long-term health and environmental impacts caused by this pollution.

Residents of the area and railroad workers, echoing the claims made by 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 the party 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 due to understaffing. This leads to shortcuts being taken and compromises the safety measures in place.

Between the years 2018 and 2020, the number of positions in the railroad industry 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 meant they had to choose between working while unwell or losing their wages. Moreover, taking time off could result in disciplinary action and potential termination. This increased strain on the workers is particularly disheartening considering that the six major railroad companies in the United States reported profits of $22 billion in 2022.

The combination of working while sick, facing punishment for taking time off, having to handle more work 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. Clearly, this can lead to catastrophic outcomes when dealing with hazardous materials.

Leo McCann, the head of the rail labor division within 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 shield, 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 powerful 7.8 earthquake, resulting in nearly 50,000 fatalities and causing injuries to an additional 115,000 individuals in Turkey. Once the initial shock subsided and rescue operations commenced, people began questioning the factors that determined which buildings collapsed and which remained intact, safeguarding those inside.

Several countries, including Japan, face a similar issue and implement stringent measures to reduce damage and casualties. One of the main approaches is enforcing building regulations that mandate contractors to construct earthquake-resistant structures. Turkey followed a similar path until 2019, when the Erdogan government passed a law retroactively legalizing numerous buildings that failed to meet earthquake construction standards. This decision allowed owners and contractors to evade the need for upgrading these substandard buildings or complying with regulations for new constructions. Instead, they only had 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 were impacted by this legal modification. When the catastrophe occurred, numerous buildings collapsed due to the increased strain, resulting in individuals nearby or inside being trapped, injured, or losing their lives. Turkish engineers and architects had cautioned about the hazardous consequences of relaxing the law, but their concerns were disregarded and overshadowed by individuals solely focused on economic expansion.

The lack of strict regulations and the resulting tragic events are not solely caused by individuals seeking financial gain, but also by a strong desire for political dominance. Erdogan’s ability to attract voters is largely attributed to his commitment of creating more employment opportunities and housing for the Turkish population through extensive construction projects. However, numerous citizens were not provided with the promised homes. This was a consequence of prioritizing profit and expansion over adhering to regulations and construction standards, ultimately resulting in the creation of unsafe living conditions.