MASERU — China Garments Manufacturers (CGM), one of the biggest textile firms in Lesotho, is accused of covering up details of a factory accident that left one employee dead and two others injured in December.
Thabo Sebapo, a 20-year-old man from Mapoteng, died while painting a water treatment tank at the factory on December 21.
Two other employees Tseliso Mosola, 34, and Monyane Makoanyane, 24, were injured as they tried to rescue Sebapo.
Sebapo, who was a casual worker at the factory, was buried in Mapoteng on January 14 in a funeral funded by CGM, which makes jeans for American fashion company Levi Strauss.
The factory management told the police that Tseliso fell to his death when he slipped off a ladder inside the tank.
The company also gave the same explanation for Mosola and Makoanyane’s case.
But CGM’s explanation to the police is totally different from the accounts of the two survivors and several witnesses who spoke to the Lesotho Times this week.
Sebapo’s death certificate which was seen by this paper, does not suggest that he died of physical injuries that could have resulted from his alleged fall.
The certificate signed by Dr C T Moorosi, a Maseru-based pathologist, says Sebapo died of “respiratory failure”.
The certificate is dated January 4 but shows that Dr Moorosi examined Sebapo’s body on December 21.
Dr Moorosi told this paper that the “respiratory failure” could have happened because Sebapo was working in a poorly ventilated area.
His explanation is corroborated by Masola and Makoanyane who said they suffocated from fumes when they tried to pull Sebapo out of the 10-metre deep tank.
So strong were the fumes from the paint that Masola collapsed before he could pull Sebapo out of the tank.
Makoanyane says when he went down to rescue his colleagues he was also affected by the fumes but managed to climb out of the tank to raise the alarm.
Makoanyane says Sebapo was working in the tank with only a dust mask to protect him from the fumes.
Safety regulations stipulate that a person working in a poorly ventilated area with potentially toxic chemicals should have a gas mask.
That Sebapo was painting the tank without a gas mask could point to CGM’s negligence in that it failed to provide him with adequate protective clothing.
There was also no supervisor to monitor him while he was in the tank, witnesses say. Makoanyane says after he managed to climb out of the tank and raised alarm some colleagues tried to help.
“One of the guys went down the tank but he too was overcome by the fumes and he quickly climbed out saying it was ‘like hell’,” Makoanyane says.
“A few more guys tried to go down the tank with gas masks but they said the masks were of no use because the fumes were too strong”.
According to Makoanyane what followed after the initial rescue attempt failed was surreal.
He says the other workers and senior management “just stood there unable to help”.
In the meantime Sebapo and Mosola were in the tank “suffering”.
He says police officers who arrived 30 minutes after the accident said they could not go down the tank because it was too dangerous.
“The two men were in that tank for about one and half hours,” Makoanyane adds.
Eventually, Makoanyane says, the management decided to call one employee from his home in Thetsane to come and help.
“When a guy called Ocean came he was the only one courageous enough to rescue the men. Ocean put on a chemical mask and he went down with a rope to pull out the two men.”
By this time Mosola and Sebapo were unconscious.
Makoanyane and several other witnesses told this paper that there was no ambulance on standby to take the two victims to hospital.
They also allege that no first aid was conducted to try and resuscitate them.
A company vehicle was used to take the two men to Maseru Private Hospital where Mosola was treated as an outpatient while Sebapo was pronounced dead a few moments later.
Makoanyane says the company did not take him to the hospital.
“I went home feeling very ill and my mother took me to Maseru Private Hospital. The company only offered to take me to hospital the following day.”
This paper understands that although investigations are still in progress CGM has already cleared the accident scene and the paint that Sebapo was using has been removed.
The water tank he was painting and could hold crucial evidence to explain the tragic accident is now full of water.
The police have also not condoned off the area around the tank.
It is unclear where CGM’s management could have gotten the evidence to claim that Sebapo plunged to his death in the water tank.
Thirty-five days after the accident the CGM management is yet to interview Makoanyane and Mosola, the two survivors who could have crucial evidence.
Mosola who has worked for CGM since 2004 went back to work a day after the accident.
He has not received any post-trauma counselling.
Makoanyane is back on the streets looking for a job after his short-term contract at the factory ended.
Sebapo’s mother is mourning a son who had become her breadwinner.
“I will never forget the feeling I had when they told me my son was dead,” Masekake Sebapo said in an interview on Monday.
CGM’s management denies they tried to cover up the details of the accident.
Factory manager, John Jitesh, said it is not true that Sebapo died because of the company’s negligence.
“We discovered that a man who was holding a paint container for him (Sebapo) dropped it and it spilled on the ground and on him,” Jitesh said.
“It is understandable why the fumes overpowered him and those who tried to help him.”
He said Sebapo was wearing a respirator (gas mask) and the tank he was painting was so small “that he could have done the job within 10 to 15 minutes”.
“This was the first time to have such an incident.”
Jitesh said there was a pump used to bring fresh air into the tank but admitted that there could have been inadequate ventilation in the tank.
Jitesh’s claim that Sebapo was wearing a gas mask has been contradicted by several witnesses including Masola who was with him in the tank.
Makoanyane also says it not true that Sebapo was wearing a gas mask.
On Tuesday police spokesperson, Masupha Masupha, said he had been told that Sebapo, Makoanyane and Mosola fell off the ladder in the tank.
“Our rescue operations team from the Mabote police station arrived after the firm’s own personnel had rescued the men,” he said.
“Unfortunately, one of them had already died,” he said.
Thabo Monyamane, an occupational safety trainer who has offered his services in various factories in Maseru and Maputsoe, told the Lesotho Times that whenever a substance with hazardous gases is used anywhere at a factory there should be a risk assessment before any work can begin.
Monyamane said the factory should have proper equipment for air sampling to assess to what extent the use of the substance would contaminate the air.
“It is of pivotal importance to assess the toxicity and abrasiveness of the substance before anybody can be exposed to it,” Monyamane said.
“Once it has been established that air will be contaminated by hazardous chemicals at the workplace, the management should make sure that there is proper ventilation and a device for extracting the gases out of the place,” he said.
He said the next step is the verification audit, which is meant to ensure that the equipment will work properly before anybody can be assigned to work on the area.
He said the provision of a respirator and other protective clothing should be given to a person assigned to do the job only after all the tests have been made.
“Otherwise nobody should be allowed to go and work at a chemically contaminated place without these tests, irrespective of whether they have protective clothing or not,” he said.
’Mamohale Matsoso, the Labour Commissioner, confirmed that CGM had informed her of the accident but said she was not in a position to release the details because of ethical constraints.
Levi Strauss, CGM’s main client, has been informed of the accident but it is not clear what details it has been given.