National defence now Estonia’s top dangerous job

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Indrek Vlassov

Latest data says it’s no longer most dangerous in Estonia do work in metal and wood industry or in construction, but rather in national defence and public administration. To improve the situation, Labour Inspectorate now makes a strange proposal: national defence injuries should no longer count as accidents at work.

While in 2013 Labour Inspectorate registered 140 accidents in national defence, last year’s figure had climbed to 308 – a 120 percent rise. It’s not just that so many people are employed in national defence. There, the probability of getting hurt is highest: for 100,000 employees, 1,400 work accidents occur. This is twice the Estonian average.

«Work accidents keep increasing in national defence. This, in turn, brings the public administration and national defence group to a very strong leadership position,» described Labour Inspectorate deputy director-general Apo Oja while commenting on the change last year – a first in the again-independent Estonia.  

The situation is weird: dangerous occupations like metal industry, construction or wood industry – where people lose fingers and lives –, are numbers-wise safer than working in local governments or a military unit. The more so that, starting last May when Estonia finished its 13 years long participation in Afghanistan, our servicemen are no longer involved in major military conflicts.

Mr Oja thinks the dark data may have two explanations. Firstly, an amendment to Military Service Act entered into force in April 2013 stating that injuries of conscripts are to be counted as accidents at work. Even though, this will not explain all of the growth as 91 injuries were registered regarding conscripts last year while the overall amount in national defence rose by 168. Secondly, Mr Oja says that possibly work accidents are simply reported more often.

Whatever the case, the accidents at national defence are often rather serious. As revealed by the cases in labour Inspectorate database, conscripts are often injured while getting into a vehicle or exiting it, pierce their eyes with weapons or run into a tree branch. Constantly, somebody’s arm or leg gets caught in a hatch and the young men spend weeks in a cast. Quite often, conscripts have suffered hearing damage when using earplugs and hurting themselves with endurance training or long marches.

«Ankle joint injuries and broken radiuses are quite common. To a large degree, the serious physical injuries happen for the same reasons as elsewhere – insufficient attention paid to processes,» analysed Mr Oja. The issue is the more actual as over these past six months, three conscripts have been seriously injured while using weapons or imitations thereof.

Mr Oja is in no hurry to claim that in national defence things are bad with occupational safety. «The nature of the accidents does not point to material mistakes at the workplace is such as not to point,» he summarised. In reality, whatever Mr Oja thinks is an assessment of a bystander as the inspectorate as no authority to investigate work accidents at national defence, issue precepts regarding these or audit safety at work. This is the job for military police and Defence Forces’ internal audit.

Part of package

To Defence Forces chief inspector Colonel Viljar Schiff, the rise in accidents came as a surprise. «The number seems big to me also, but on the other hand: our job is more dangerous than some others,» he said.

The chief inspector will personally intervene with the more extreme work accidents; among other things, Col Schiff dealt with the last three serious accidents with conscripts.

And they have learnt their lessons. For instance: the type of explosive packages that in 2014 injured a conscript’s leg and in 2009 another one’s fingers have by now been removed from use by decision of Commander of the Defence Forces and will be destroyed. «The quality of the Estonian firm that produced these was very unstable. Into some, instead of one spoonful (of explosive – O. K.) they put one and a half, and into some two. Hence the problem,» explained Col Schiff. Now, Defence Forces have new explosive packages in use to imitate grenades; even when exploding in one’s hand, these ought to be harmless.

About the conscript getting a bullet wound in shoulder on this March 10th in Sirgala, investigations are still underway. The Defence Forces do not take safety lightly, as evidenced by internal audit currently surveying the situation. «A couple of days before the shooting trainings where the injury occurred, they went and audited the Viru Battalion and found no direct material omissions,» said Col Schiff.

As the military police concludes their investigation, the chief inspector will make a proposal to Commander of the Defence Forces if anything ought to be altered. For instance, they are weighing a ban on machine gunner aids to train shooting from shoulder with sharp ammunition.

«A foundation being: all that we want our soldiers to master during war, we need to train during peace,» said the chief instructor. «On the other hand, we cannot afford the luxury of having people hurt in times of peace.»

Quit statistics

Staring at the tough data, Labour Inspectorate arrived at a somewhat strange conclusion: to propose that accidents at national defence be not regarded accidents at work.

«By nature, national defence sector is not under surveillance of Labour Inspectorate and the inspectorate is unable to affect its working environment,» the inspectorate says in its report. «Also, we would question if accidents with conscripts may be considered accidents at work.» To our knowledge, in most European nations this is not the practice.

The inspectorate’s approach may come across as sticking the head in the sand. Meanwhile, the way we arrived at the current situation is an accident at work in its own right. Namely; the inspectorate claims that as the Military Service Act was being amended in 2013, labour Inspectorate was not notified nor was their assessment sought. Moreover, social ministry approved the bill not. 

Should the inspectorate take its proposals before the social minister and these get written into law, next year’s statistics may not reflect national defence work accidents at all.


*On October 22nd 2014, a Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion conscript was seriously injured in Kanepi Parish while in a trench as an explosive package imitating grenade fell into the area of his thigh. At disciplinary investigation at defence Forces, it surfaced there were two conscripts in the trench but with a tree and thick brush before them, they did not personally throw explosive packages. Probably, the package fell into the trench from a trench nearby, at five to seven meters to the left, as a result of a bad throw. As the investigation was concluded, Commander of Defence Forces Lieutenant-General Riho Terras banned use of such explosive packages in the defence forces and ordered that these be destroyed.

*This year, in the eve of January 5th, a conscript of logistics battalion was injured at grenade throwing exercises as the grenade thrown by him fell into the trench and exploded. The conscript and the instructor took cover but the conscript was injured and hospitalised. During military police investigation, it was concluded there were no violations but no explicit cause was cited. The conscript and the instructor were no longer able to specify it the conscript was unable to throw the grenade out of the trench, or, during the throw, he hit his arm against the back wall of the trench and therefore dropped the grenade.

*Before noon this March 10th on Sirgala polygon, a 1st Infantry Brigade antitank company conscript was injured at exercises, his shoulder scraped by a bullet. The accident happened with a battle tandem practicing shooting position from the shoulder with machine gun MG3 as needed to open fire while in deep snow or tall grass. The stand of the rifled barrel resting on the conscript’s shoulder came loose, the gun slipped and a bulled flying out scratches the lad’s shoulder. Military police investigation is underway, to find out if the gun was mishandled or defective.