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Tianjin’s deadly blasts expose China’s work safety woes

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    Medical staff move a severely burnt victim of a dust explosion at metal plant from a hospital in the city of Kunshan in eastern China's Jiangsu Province. China’s government says the country’s work safety has improved over the past decade and a half but that grave challenges remain. In 2013, China recorded 290,000 accidents with 66,000 deaths - down from one million accidents with 140,000 deaths in 2002.

BEIJING >> By official data, China is becoming safer from accidents year after year. But the explosions over the Tianjin port last week are a stark reminder that it has far to go in preventing workplace disasters — from blasts on factory floors to leaks of oil pipes and warehouse fires.

The blasts that started at a hazardous material warehouse in the eastern city of Tianjin and killed at least 114 people in one of China’s worst industrial accidents in years came despite countless pledges by authorities to strictly enforce workplace safety regulations. There have been numerous campaigns — always one after each fatal accident — to eliminate safety risks, and local officials are routinely fired over fatal workplace incidents.

But a deep-rooted business mentality that puts profits ahead of safety seems hard to break in Beijing’s fight against workplace accidents. The latest revelations on Ruihai International Logistics, the operator of the hazmat warehouse, suggest that a common Chinese business model — which heavily taps into connections with people in government — means safety rules can be easily bent for the convenience of the company.

"Companies are taking chances to skimp on safety measures, and regulating agencies are unable to enforce rules," said Zhong Shengjun, associate professor on industrial explosion and prevention at Northeastern University in Shenyang. "This is consistent with China’s corporate culture, which is most interested in cutting costs and maximizing profits without adequate heed for safety."

Within days of the disaster, blatant violations of workplace safety have been exposed at Ruihai International Logistics, which was storing too much hazardous material too closely to residential homes and public infrastructure, including a light-rail station.

A detailed report by the official Xinhua News Agency on Wednesday said the company is co-owned by a former executive of the powerful state-owned enterprise Sinochem Group and a son of a late police chief overseeing the port. The union of the two was to leverage their resources into business success, and the connections appeared to have worked in their pursuit for the license to handle hazardous material — but at the cost of safety.

Dong Shexuan, the late police chief’s son, told Xinhua he was able to easily obtain approval from the fire department, which nudged planning officials to overlook the 1,000-meter rule for safety distance. The other owner, Yu Xuewei, picked a safety evaluation firm that was willing to look past the distance rule but endorse the project.

State media also reported that the warehouse was storing the dangerous chemical sodium cyanide in huge amounts 70 times the limit allowed, and questions have been raised about whether residents in the area were suitably informed of the hazardous material.

The critical reports are a departure for state media, which are tasked to be the government’s mouthpiece, touting government achievements, when uncomfortable questions and dissenting voices are suppressed for the sake of social stability.

The country’s overall safety has improved over the past decade and a half. In 2014, China recorded 290,000 accidents with 66,000 deaths — down from 1 million accidents with 140,000 deaths in 2002. But those numbers include not only industrial workplaces, but also mines, car accidents and even plane crashes. China does not publicly say whether workplaces are getting safer or not.

One notable exception: mining. During the economic boom of the early 2000s, China dominated the world in the number of mining fatalities, with annual deaths as high as 6,000-7,000 a year as owners sought to maximize profits by skimping on safety.

Dismayed by the carnage and its effect on China’s reputation, Beijing cracked down on the small, often illegal operations that were the worst offenders, demanded compliance with safety rules, and jailed mine operators whose gross negligence led to fatalities. Those efforts have paid off: According to official figures, mining deaths have dropped below 1,000 last year.

Recent incidents in other workplaces suggest many other industries could use similar scrutiny.

In June 2013, a fire at a poultry plant in the northeastern province of Jilin killed 121 people. Investigators found that exit doors were bolted, a clear violation of Chinese law. An explosion caused by an oil pipe leak in late 2013 in the eastern city of Qingdao killed 62, and the public raised questions why residential homes were allowed to be built near the aging pipelines.

In August 2014, a dust explosion at a metal plant in the eastern city of Kunshan killed 146 people, and a government investigation ruled that safety violations including a failure to routinely remove dust from the floor led to the blast.

The cause of the fire and blasts at Ruihai’s warehouse is yet to be determined, but human negligence is certain to have played a part.

Tianjin officials confirmed the facility contained 700 tons of the toxic chemical sodium cyanide at the time of the explosions — as compared with the allowable limit of 10 tons as reported by state media.

The company obtained a license to handle hazardous material despite being within as close as 500 meters (1,640 feet) of residential complexes and public infrastructure, in clear violation of a national rule mandating a 1,000-meter safe distance for hazmat storage.

Calls to the regulatory agencies, Tianjin Maritime Safety Administration and Tianjin Municipal Transportation Commission, were unanswered on Monday and Tuesday.

State media also have found a survey that polled 130 neighboring businesses and residents who raised no objection to the company’s bid for the hazmat license, even though residents affected by the blasts say they were unaware of the survey and that they had no knowledge of the hazardous material stored in huge quantities in their backyard. The survey was part of the environmental impact assessment required of Ruihai to gain the hazmat permit. On Wednesday, Tianjin officials said the assessment should be open to the public, but the local environmental protection agency has failed to do so. No explanation was provided.

"Had we known about the hazmat warehouse, we would have never bought this apartment," said Chen Yang, who bought an upscale apartment near the port in late 2014. "We knew of the Tianjin port, but we never knew there was hazardous material there."

Zhong, the associate professor, said it is possible that such surveys are fabricated as part of the licensing process.

"If the public truly had the right to know, if the licensing process were open and transparent, then many safety issues would not have been bypassed — they would surely have been addressed," Zhong said.

As if to mend the oversight, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on Monday ordered a nationwide check on safety, especially in workplaces handling explosive and hazardous materials. It mandates absolute compliance with safety regulations, including keeping a safe distance from residential areas and not exceeding storage limits.

Zhong said it remains to be seen whether the Tianjin blasts will be a turning point for industrial workplaces.

"I hope it would be the case, but it’s unlikely as long as the mentality toward work safety does not change," he said. "The factory owners are still taking their chances."

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