Lax safety laws blamed for fatal blast at Jiangsu factory

Tougher rules to prevent build-up of potentially explosive dust would have averted disaster at Kunshan metalworks plant, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 4:23am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 6:34pm

The explosion at a metalworks factory in Jiangsu province that killed at least 75 people could have been averted if the mainland had stronger safety laws to prevent the build-up of dust that sparked the blast, observers and a labour organisation said.

The explosion at Zhongrong Metal Products is thought to have occurred when a flame ignited thick dust in a polishing workshop at the car parts factory in Kunshan. More than 180 people were injured.

An official at the Kunshan Administration of Work Safety told the South China Morning Post it had warned Zhongrong many times that the dusty working conditions at the plant could spark an explosion.

"It's impossible for us to assign an official to supervise this company every day and we have no power to shut it down," the official, who declined to give his name, said.

There was a fire in a part of the polishing workshop two months ago after metal dust was ignited by an overheated engine in the workshop's dust-cleaning machine, The Beijing News reported.

China Labour Watch, a US-based workers' rights group, said that if proper equipment had been installed at the factory the disaster would have been avoided.

"Safety measures like ventilation systems should have prevented such an accumulation of dust particles," the organisation said in a statement. "This tragedy is a result of lax safety standards in the workplace."

Peter Chen, an engineer with TRW Automotive, a car systems supplier, said the accident was not an isolated case of poor industrial safety standards on the mainland. "In China, the industry players care about only the sales and growth, but the other facet of the phenomenon such as safety and quality can be ignored with ease," he said.

The central government has made repeated pledges to improve work safety on the mainland, but initiatives were often ignored by local authorities in their haste to attract new investment, one businessman said.

"A county-level government in Shandong province invited me to open a facility for electrolytic aluminium production," said businessman Zhou Lingzi.

"They told me they could sidestep the environmental authorities' reviews."

The factory in Kunshan provided parts for General Motors' main supplier on the mainland.

The US-based carmaker said yesterday it had asked its supplier to find an alternative source of components after Saturday's explosion.

The firm said it had no direct dealings with the Kunshan company, which it described as a second-tier supplier.

Its main suppliers were "required to source from tier-2 suppliers who must meet both in-country environment and safety standards as well as quality standards", General Motors said.

New York-based China Labour Watch said the carmaker should have made stronger efforts to supervise safety at all of its suppliers. It had "a duty to ensure safe production in its supply chain and it shares responsibility for this deadly explosion", the rights group said.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse