In an effort to force Fortune Steel to comply with health and safety laws, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) embarked on a picket outside Fortune Steel in Nigel on Thursday.

The union embarked on a protest on Friday last week, demanding that Fortune Steel answer for the dangerous conditions and high injury rate at the facility, as well its failure to properly attend to injured workers.

Numsa’s acting national spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola told the Mail & Guardian that the union is aware of 18 cases in which workers have been unfairly dismissed after sustaining injuries at the plant — an allegation that Fortune Steel’s Gaurav Bansal has denied outright.

The Saturday evening following the protest, seven workers were injured when a furnace exploded. A closed piece of metal scrap, which was deeply embedded in a bale of scrap steel, caused the blast.

On the Monday following the explosion, Hlubi-Majola told IOL that Fortune Steel tried to cover up this latest incident.

“They refused to call the ambulance and attempted to transport the injured themselves using private vehicles. It was only with the intervention of the local police that workers received medical care provided for by the ambulances. The management had the audacity to try and downplay the accident as a minor workplace issue,” Hlubi-Majola said.

On Numsa’s accusation that management failed to intervene, Bansal told the M&G that, on the night of the incident, “the emergency services were informed, but the staff in the plant did not want to waste any time waiting for the ambulance services and as such decided to take the injured in a personal vehicle”.

Bansal added that there was a representative from the police on the site at the time and that the officer was informed that the injured need to be taken to the hospital.

“The vehicle was stopped by another wing of South African Police Service just around the plant and was instructed not to take the injured to the hospital. The instructions were then duly complied with and the injured were then taken to the hospital in an ambulance which came some time after,” said Bansal.

Bansal later suggested to City Press that the explosion might have been an act of foul play:  “We feel we need to cover all avenues, because it could be that since the company has been doing so well and there are people who are unhappy that the company has been doing well, we need to make sure that foul play is not the reason why the furnace exploded.”

Hlubi-Majola retorted, telling the M&G that Fortune Steel is “notorious” for flouting health and safety laws and that the union “strongly suspects” that the company’s refusal to comply with domestic labour laws and health and safety laws may have been the cause of the accident.

She also accused Fortune Steel of not allowing the department of labour to inspect the site after the explosion, as it is required to by law: “Fortune Steel can’t speculate on the cause of the accident. The labour department must make a determination on what caused the accident.”

Hlubi-Majola also said that workers were expected to report to duty the following day.

“Can you imagine having to go to work after seeing your colleagues severely injured? They were traumatised,” Hlubi-Majola said.

Bansal told the M&G that the plant was only re-opened after the site was declared safe by the emergency departments. The workers, he said, were requested to resume duties “which they agreed to in good faith”.

Bansal also denied Numsa’s claim that the company had failed to get the department of labour to inspect the premises: “The inspectors of the department have already visited the plant twice to investigate the matter and we are now waiting for a report form the department.”

Hlubi-Majola said that Numsa is currently meeting with the department and Fortune Steel to force the company to abide by labour laws.