Italy opens investigation after Florence building site collapse kills three

Public prosecutors in Florence have launched an investigation into a building site accident that caused the deaths of at least three workers on Friday morning.

The construction site where three workers were killed after a part of the structure collapsed in Florence.
The construction site where three workers were killed after a part of the structure collapsed in Florence. Photo by Handout / Vigili del Fuoco / AFP.

As of Friday afternoon, three workers had been found dead, three injured, and two were missing following the collapse at a supermarket construction site on Florence’s Via Mariti, the Corriere della Sera newspaper reported.

“Three workers died because of their jobs, in the heart of Florence,” said Monia Monni, civil protection officer for Italy’s central Tuscany region, calling it an “immense tragedy”.

In a statement posted on Facebook, she said three people were in hospital, two of them in a serious but not life-threatening condition, while “firefighters are still searching for two people missing under the rubble”.

Florence Mayor Dario Nardella expressed his condolences and declared Saturday a city-wide day of mourning for the workers.

“Grief and shock over the tragedy at the construction site for the new supermarket in Florence,” he wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

On behalf of myself and the [Florence city council] I express condolences for the victims and thank all the rescuers in action. Waiting for updates on the other workers involved.”

The accident took place on a site northwest of Florence’s main train station, where workers were putting together prefabricated concrete structures for a new Esselunga supermarket.

Esselunga president Marina Caprotti said the company’s Florence outlets would close on Friday afternoon as a mark of respect.

Speaking earlier before the confirmation of the deaths, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni offered her condolences to those affected and prayers for those injured and missing.

“It is another story… of people who go out to work, who simply go out to do their job, and do not come home,” she said during a visit to Calabria.

“Safety at work must be considered a priority, it is unacceptable that every day we talk about deaths and injuries as if we are at war,” said the CGIL union in a statement.

Initial reports indicate that the incident was caused by the collapse of a pylon, which could have been caused by its misplacement or by defects in the composition of the concrete. 

Prosecutors are reportedly considering charges of negligent collapse and manslaughter, though no suspects have been named at this stage.

Caprotti said Esselunga had outsourced the site’s construction to a third party.

1,041 workers were killed at their jobs in Italy in 2023, according to news agency Ansa, amounting to almost three a day.

According to European Union statistics, Italy recorded 3.17 workplace deaths per 100,000 employed people, above the bloc-wide average of 2.23 but behind France (4.47) and Austria (3.44).

Across the EU, 22.5 percent of all fatal workplace accidents took place within the construction sector.

Italy’s Labour and Social Policies Minister Calderone said on Friday she was closely following the rescue operations and considering what additional measures to take.

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Are Italy’s workplaces more dangerous than elsewhere in Europe?

Following reports of yet another deadly workplace accident in Italy, does the country really perform worse than its European neighbours when it comes to worker safety?

Are Italy’s workplaces more dangerous than elsewhere in Europe?

On Monday, five workers maintenance workers were killed on the island of Sicily after inhaling poisonous fumes at a sewage treatment plant.

This latest tragedy follows the high-profile deaths of five workers at a Florence construction site in February, and the deaths of seven workers in an explosion at a hydroelectric plant outside Bologna in April.

The frequency with which these stories appear in the headlines can make it seem like there’s a major workplace incident every other week in Italy.

The issue even made it into this year’s Sanremo music festival with Paolo Jannacci and Stefano Massini’s performance of L’Uomo nel lampo (‘The man in the flash’), introduced by host Amadeus with a sombre reflection on the number of people killed on the job in Italy every day (around three).

READ ALSO: Rome square filled with coffins in protest over Italy’s workplace deaths

But does Italy really perform significantly worse than the rest of Europe when it comes to worker protections, or does it just sometimes feel that way?

According to data from the European Commission’s statistics office, Eurostat, in 2021 (the most recent year for which data is available) Italy had the eighth highest number of fatalities out of the 27 EU countries, with 2.66 deaths per 100,000 workers – worse than Spain and Portugal, but better than France and Austria.

The worst three countries for worker deaths were Latvia, with 4.29 deaths per 100,000, followed by Lithuania (3.75) and Malta (3.34); while the three least-fatal countries for workers were Finland (0.75), Greece (0.58) and Holland (0.33).

Workplace deaths in Europe in 2021. Source: Eurostat

If you look at Eurostat’s standardised incidence rates – which adjust for the fact that domestic economies rely to a greater or lesser extent on different industries that carry different levels of worker risk – Italy remains in eighth place, but performs slightly worse, with more than 3 deaths per 100,000.

Data from Italy’s state-run Workers Compensation Authority, INAIL, shows that worker deaths in Italy dropped from more than ten per day in the early 1960’s to around one third that number in the early 90’s, but haven’t significantly declined since then.

INAIL figures also show that 191 people died at work in the first quarter of 2024 – no worse than any time in the past decade, when the numbers have consistently hovered around 200.

That’s not good enough for workers’ rights groups, who say those in power are failing to enforce adequate worker safety protections.

The Palermo chapter of workers union CGIL staged a general strike and a protest outside the city’s prefecture on Tuesday, following a national protest calling for better worker safety protections last month.

Cardboard coffins fill Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on March 19th in a protest drawing attention to the number of deaths at work in Italy. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

“A business model based on contracts, subcontracts and precariousness is a model that kills,” CGIL general secretary Maurizio Landini told reporters.

Unions are calling for “continuous and comprehensive inspections, supervision of the contracting system, and more attention to the training of workers.”

Initial reports showed that none of the workers who died on Monday were wearing personal protective equipment. One was retired, and two were not technically qualified to carry out the works.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella described the incident as “yet another unacceptable workplace massacre,” adding that he hoped that “full light will be shed” on the causes of the accident.

In a 2023 report, INAIL’s supervisory board noted that the authority had a significant budget surplus, but that it couldn’t be used for accident prevention because current regulations ringfence the funds for compensation payouts.

The authority’s exclusive focus on building up financial reserves for insurance claims while neglecting to fund worker safety initiatives is counter-productive, the board wrote, “perpetuating a vicious circle that diverts resources needed for prevention by pouring them into the Treasury in excess of real needs.”

Instead of simply building up reserves, they argue, the institute should focus its efforts on “decisive intervention” to reduce workplace accidents, “including through the funding of prevention initiatives”.