In April 2021, Denis Otvalov died during his working hours at the Mednogorsk copper-sulfur industrial complex in the Orenburg Region. After one of the structures collapsed, he was buried under a melting furnace's loading material. Otvalov was 24 years old, he had a wife and three children.
A week after the tragedy, Denis's coworkers gathered for his wake, which turned into a spontaneous rally. Workers complained about their working conditions at the plant: they had to use outdated equipment while personal protective equipment was lacking. They were also dissatisfied with unreasonable fines, overtime and deaths on duty: "Who is going to answer for the deaths of people? That's the most important question. Actually, there’s no one to answer. The evidence is concealed, the facts are conсealed. Children lose their fathers while officials have everything covered up. We have dead bodies every year," a man says in a video posted on the Mednogorsk Motivator YouTube channel.
"Only ten days after Otvalov’s death, when we had a gathering, officials admitted that an accident had occurred and made a statement on the official website. If it wasn't for the rally, they wouldn't have acknowledged this accident. They said that some kind of an alarm siren was turned on, but the workers didn’t have time to escape. An alarm, sure! It wasn’t even there. Everything just collapsed from old age," Maxim, an employee of the industrial complex, told IStories (the name was changed at the request of the interviewee. — Ed. Note).
"I almost died myself in February. A huge chunk of copper that weighed several tons fell from the dust cover of a converter (a device for removing exhaust gasses and dust. — Ed. Note). It broke through the iron floors. I was barely touched by it, that piece tore my jacket and boots. If I had been standing just a little to the left or to the right, there would have been another fatal accident," Maxim recalls.
Another employee of the copper-sulfur plant Nikolai (the name was changed at the request of the interviewee. — Ed. Note) has been working as a converter for five years (converters clean metals and alloys from additives to improve their quality. — Ed. Note). He told IStories that the management constantly reschedules repairs despite the deterioration of the equipment. "Repairs should be carried out on schedule. When you ask the management about the repairs, they promise to do them in a few days. For example, on Saturday. On a Saturday shift you notice that the equipment is still operating. Then you ask them again. The management says that they postponed repairs to Monday. And then the cycle repeats. Even when they do repairs, they do everything negligent: they paint the equipment and everything seems to be new. The consequences of such deterioration are injuries and corpses," says Nikolai.
According to Rostrud, 1.613 workers died at Russian enterprises in 2019. This means that more than four workers die in Russia daily. The death rate at Russian factories is one of the highest in the world. The situation is worse only in Egypt, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Mexico, Hong Kong and Guadeloupe (we picked 2014 for comparison because this year has the most complete statistics on different countries. — Ed. Note).
Paradoxically, in official statistics the situation with non-fatal injuries in Russia is better than in developed Western countries despite such a high death rate at work.
"We are on the level with developed countries, such as Germany," Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets commented on the scale of industrial injuries in Russia in 2017. She stated that since 2012, the number of accidents with severe consequences has decreased by 40%. Official data confirms her point of view: according to Rosstat, the number of accidents from 2012 to 2017 decreased by 37% — from 40 thousand to 25 thousand.
How did it happen that Russia is on the same level with developed countries in non-fatal accidents and with neighboring countries like Uzbekistan and Guadeloupe in fatal ones? Experts in the field of occupational safety and health explain this mismatch by saying that official data on industrial injuries in Russia are greatly underreported.
In 2014, Rosstat recorded 31.300 accidents at production facilities and enterprises. Among them 1.460 resulted in the death of an employee. According to these data, one in 21 cases ends in death.
In Germany, for comparison, only one in 1.687 accidents was fatal. According to the International Labor Organization, in other developed European countries this indicator ranges between 500-1000 or more non-fatal cases per one fatal.
(We compared occupational injuries during 2014, because statistics for the largest number of countries were available on the International Labor Organization site for this period. — Ed. Note).
A low number of non-fatal accidents per death frequently indicates distortion of statistics and concealment of injuries at enterprises. An industrial injury can always be passed for a domestic one, unrelated to professional activity. The death of an employee is much more difficult to hide and it’s more likely to be acknowledged. Therefore, one should pay close attention to fatal cases when assessing industrial injuries.
Over the last 20 years, the number of industrial accidents in Russia has decreased 6.5 times — from 152 thousand to 23 thousand. The number of deaths has also decreased but only four times: from 4.400 to 1.060 cases. At the same time, in developed Western countries, the opposite trend is evident: deaths are decreasing faster than non-fatal injuries.
This happens because the number of injuries is reduced due to the modern equipment, industrial automation, improvement of the occupational safety system and staff training. "Practices of many countries show that such measures primarily lead to a decrease in fatal and severe injuries, and the reduction of less severe accidents occurs at a slower pace," write scientists of the Laboratory of Socio-Genetic Research from the Izmerov Research Institute of Occupational Medicine.
The Ministry of Health data clearly shows the swapping between industrial injuries and domestic ones. From 2005 to 2010, the number of injuries related to work decreased by 360 thousand, while the number of domestic injuries increased by 525 thousand over the same period.
Another proof of non-fatal accidents concealment is the increase in the sick leave period per employee. If in 2000 an injured person had 28 days of sick leave on average, in 2019 it was already more than 50 days. This indicates the tracking of mostly severe injuries which have an exact same 50-day sick leave.
According to the head of the Legal Department of the Russian Confederation of Labor Oleg Babich, employers have a financial interest in hiding injuries at work. "If an accident is officially recorded, the employer responsible for it must pay a financial compensation," the expert explains. In addition, accidents affect the sum of donations that the employer transfers to the Social Insurance Fund. If there have been no accidents at the enterprise for three years straight, the employer can claim a discount. On the contrary, if the number of accidents increases — an employer will have a higher rate. The insurance donations may vary by 40% up or down.
By hiding injuries, the employer also avoids additional control, which can result in a fine of 50 to 100 thousand rubles or even the suspension of the enterprise’s activities. At the same time, the penalty for concealing an injury at work is minimal — only from 5 to 10 thousand rubles. So, the employer tries to pass an industrial injury for a domestic one not to pay additional fees and not to attract the attention of inspectors.
If an employee also recognizes an injury as a domestic one, he or she loses the right to get compensation or other benefits that are secured by law. Payments for treatment and rehabilitation, additional sick leave and insurance payouts can reach 100 thousand rubles.
Workers rarely receive those payouts and other benefits. "Employees do not know their rights and don’t try to protect them seriously. They are being fooled and threatened, employers might say: "You should understand that a part of this is also your fault. If we give the case a go, we’ll have to fire you," says Oleg Babich.
The fear of sacking scares employees of monopolistic enterprises the most. The partner of the law bureau “Sokolov, Trusov and Partners” and a lawyer Galina Ivanova explained that because of total legal illiteracy, employees easily follow the lead of their superiors. "If an employee has been working at one of such monopolist enterprises for many years, he is simply afraid of losing his job and not getting another opportunity elsewhere. An employee might also want to maintain personal relations at work. But such aspirations may go sideways. A person does not know how previous injuries will affect him in twenty years," the lawyer explains.
"Injuries happen very often, and there is always some pressure to record them as domestic ones. Employees don’t have much choice so they agree to that: their children and wives also work at the same enterprise. Security departments are constantly resorting to pressure on women. I know a case when a person's finger was torn off and even that was recorded as a domestic injury," Maxim, an employee of the Mednogorsk industrial complex, told IStories.
In 2014, Mednogorsk was listed as a single-industry town "at risk of socio-economic recession". The copper-sulfur plant is the main employer in the city, so workers are afraid of layoffs. Maxim explains: "At the industrial complex, a converter can earn 50 thousand rubles, if there were no penalties throughout the month. We consider this a great salary and the management exploits that. They say, "If you don't like it, go away."
At the time of publication, the management of the Mednogorsk industrial complex did not respond to the request from IStories.
According to the chief non-staff occupational therapist (a specialist who identifies and treats occupational diseases. — Ed. Note) of the Ministry of Health Igor Bukhtiyarov, the number of workplaces that do not meet sanitary and hygienic requirements for various indicators is decreasing.
According to the head of the law department of the Confederation of Labor of Russia Oleg Babich, this trend started not because of real improvements in working conditions, but rather because of lowered standards. "Many requirements are now simply abolished. Some were loosened, so there is not much left to check," Babich explained.
"When inspections come, employees are told to hide, the equipment is put on hold. The management pretends that everything is fine and makes an impression of order on camera. They show that there is no gas contamination, no noise, no violations. We used to have a lot of heat, noise and gas pollution. We were paid extra because of that. Now the payouts for harmful working conditions is 1600 rubles," says Nikolai, an employee of the Mednogorsk industrial complex.
Employees of enterprises with harmful working conditions usually retire earlier and receive additional payments and benefits. If the health of an employee has suffered during his work experience and he was diagnosed with an occupational disease, his pension should be increased. But, according to the workers of the Mednogorsk industrial complex, it’s been impossible to diagnose occupational diseases for the last few years. "Doctors refuse to record diseases as occupational. There are professional therapists in hospitals, but it's useless to consult them either: everyone is bribed. The last time people were diagnosed with occupational diseases was a few years ago. And that only happened because they managed to be examined closer to Moscow," says Maxim.
In recent years, the number of registered occupational pathologies has been decreasing. But, according to Oleg Babich, this is happening not because of better healthcare for workers, but because of registration issues. "Nowadays it’s more difficult to get diagnosed with an occupational disease. There are lots of bureaucratic procedures."
According to head of the law department of the Confederation of Labor of Russia Oleg Babich, it’s easy for an employer to impose working conditions and conceal injuries if employees do not control the situation themselves. "In organizations where trade unions monitor working conditions, it’s much more difficult to hide production injuries. It’s important not just to join a labor union. People should understand that they are a part of a large trade labor family, a part of a large mechanism that protects the rights of workers. With the help of such a mechanism, we can solve issues of raising salaries, improving working conditions and labor protection," explained Oleg Babich.
In fact, not all labor unions actually protect the rights of workers. The employees of the Mednogorsk industrial complex said that their union does not react to any of the problems: "We know that there is the chairman of the labor union and his name is Marcel Solodkin, but we haven't seen him for eight years. He doesn't visit the workshops. We’ll try to create an independent labor union. We have written a collective complaint, and now inspectors are coming. I'm so tired of burying my friends."
Lawyer Galina Ivanova is sure that in order to effectively fight back against the lawlessness of the employers, workers must attract the attention of the media, human rights organizations, and the local administration. "You can start a rally against violations of workers' rights. Public outcry is a good way to pressure the employers, which will remind them that no company can operate without employees," the lawyer believes.
It’s much more difficult to fight for rights when an employee gets one-on-one with an employer. Alexander Chubukov from Ulan-Ude got into such a situation. In 2018, he worked at a sawmill. An ordinary working day ended with a serious injury — Alexander fell on a band saw and gravely cut his lower back. According to him, the sciatic nerve, which is responsible for the muscular function and sensitivity of the legs, was sawn by 90%. The blade also severely damaged internal organs. So at the age of 30, Chubukov got the first disability group.
Alexander also said that his employer takes no responsibility. "The employer completely denied that anything had happened. He even denies the fact that I worked at the sawmill. I didn’t sign an employment contract. He always said that we are going to do that later. I kept waiting and worked for 34 months with no official contract. Others also worked without proper papers, they didn’t even care," says Alexander.
Alexander was able to prove in court that he was actually employed, but the lawsuit dragged on for three years: "The court is on my side. I won the case, but the employer filed an appeal. Even several criminal cases were brought against him, but only one went to court."
While the lawsuit is still underway, Alexander had several operations. Now he can already walk for 200-300 meters straight, although at first the doctors said that he would never recover. Even so, Chubukov's condition remains severe.
"Imagine putting a foot in boiling water. Is that going to hurt? Well, I always feel pain like that. I only sleep for an hour or two daily, three at maximum. I can’t imagine my life without drugs [narcotic analgesics] now. Without them I can neither step or get up. I can't even use the bathroom normally. I won't wish this life to anyone, not even to the employer," says Alexander.
Chubukov was ready for amputation in order to stop the pain, but, according to him, surgeons advised against it: they are afraid of phantom pains that cannot be suppressed even with painkillers. Alexander's wife quit her job to help her husband: both of them live on his 18 thousand rubles pension, while rent costs eight thousand and one appointment with a neurosurgeon costs two thousand rubles.
If the court won’t change the order, Alexander is going to receive insurance payments and compensation for material damage. But he is not that enthusiastic about it: "Money, so what? I would have earned more. Right now it's just a period of time when I've become someone I never wanted to be. I would like to live a normal life and work, but now it's impossible. Well, not to lose your spirit is above all. After any fall, a person can always get up. But now I almost don't feel my left leg. There’s only pain. And it becomes stronger every day."
Alexander Chubukov's injury did not affect the official injury statistics at his workplace, as well as tens of thousands of other similar cases. The International Labor Organization advised to calculate the number of production injuries as follows: 500-1000 non-fatal cases per one fatal injury. Based on these recommendations, IStories estimated that in 2020 from half a million to a million Russian workers could be injured at work. This number is 22-44 times higher than Rosstat data. According to Rosstat, only 20,700 workers were injured in 2020.
According to Oleg Babich, misleading statistics can lead to serious consequences: "Now the data is distorted, and everything seems to be fine. You might not observe the real situation and look the other way. In fact, of course, there is an actual challenge, and it’s not being solved. Sooner or later, combined with other issues, this will lead to explosive consequences."
Editors: Alesya Marokhovskaya, Roman Anin