Switzerland’s largest trade union, Unia, is calling for improvements to safety on tunnel construction sites, following the deaths of several workers.
Contractors and experts maintain that safety standards on transalpine tunnel sites are high, but admit that all risks cannot be eliminated.
The move comes after another fatal accident – the third in the last two weeks – on a transalpine tunnel construction site.
"I would like to emphasise that Unia is not interested in finding a scapegoat for the accidents, but aims to find solutions to safety-and health-related problems of workers in AlpTransit tunnels," Unia’s Dario Mordasini told swissinfo.
Contractors are currently building two new rail links – one at the Gotthard in central Switzerland and one at the Lötschberg in the west – aimed at helping to move transalpine freight traffic from road to rail. It is one of the largest construction projects in Europe.
But since work on the two base tunnels started in 1996, 11 workers have died.
Unia has therefore requested – for the second time – that the parliamentary commission overseeing the rail link project, call a meeting of all parties involved to discuss the problem.
"I think that three fatal accidents within two weeks, but also the fact that construction work had to be stopped because of dust problems in the Gotthard tunnel, indicate that these issues need to be discussed," said Mordasini. "That is the reason why Unia decided to intervene."
The union says it has repeatedly flagged up problems on the sites such as working conditions that pose a health risk or the non-adherence to regulations.
Mordasini added that the death toll on the transalpine project was high compared with similar projects elsewhere in Europe, such as the 78.5 km-long railway line between Bologna and Florence in Italy, which resulted in only one death.
He said that the union feared that rising costs and time pressure might also put workers’ safety at risk.
The transport ministry announced in January that final costs for the Lötschberg and Gotthard tunnels due to be finished in 2007 and 2015, were now estimated at SFr16.4 billion ($13.7 billion). The cost of the project was initially set at SFr15 billion.
This is not the first time that Unia has raised its concerns. Four years ago the union started developing new safety concepts for construction sites.
But employers rejected the move saying that current measures were good enough.
The two companies involved in the transalpine rail project – the operating company BLS Lötschbergbahn and the contractor BLS AlpTransit – have denied that there is a problem with safety on the sites.
Ruedi Suter, head of communications at AlpTransit Gotthard, says work-related safety standards are good and that unions and accident insurer Suva regularly carry out site inspections.
"We can assure you that the construction sites are [as] safe [as they can be]," said Suter.
He added that the number of workers killed was relatively low, considering that people worked shifts 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
Suter said that only one of the 11 deaths was related to tunnel construction work; the others were due to transport or operations.
Hans-Rudolf Schalcher from the civil engineering department at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has carried out research into the rail link project on behalf of the parliamentary commission.
He confirmed to swissinfo that the number of fatal accidents was not extraordinarily high.
"Surface mining is extremely dangerous and such accidents can happen on construction sites," Schalcher said.
He added that AlpTransit Gotthard was taking measures to ensure the safety of workers, such as training to help reduce the risk of accidents.
When contacted, BLS AlpTransit spokeswoman Nicole Bayard confirmed that no new measures were being planned, but said that this was because contractors were already doing everything in their power to ensure onsite safety.
swissinfo, Katalin Fekete
The transalpine rail project aims to move north-south freight traffic through the Alps from road to rail.
The project consists of two rail links - the 35 km-long Lötschberg and the 57 km-long Gotthard base tunnels, which are expected to open in 2007 and 2014/15.
So far 41.8 per cent of the Gotthard tunnel has been excavated and 99.4% of the Lötschberg tunnel has already been bored.
Work-related deaths: 11
Gotthard base tunnel:
08.06.2000 in Sedrun: 1
13.03.2001 in Sedrun: 1
11.09.2003 in Amsteg: 1
03.04.2003 in Faido: 1
21.01.2005 in Bodio: 2
Lötschberg base tunnel:
06.12.1999 in Ferden: 1
22.02.2003 in Mitholz: 1
06.11.2003 in Ferden: 1
16.07.2004 in Mitholz: 1
03.02.2005 in Raron: 1
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