Tian­jin blasts ex­pose work safety woes


By of­fi­cial data, main­land 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 main­land China’s 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 dis- tance. The other owner, Yu Xuewei, picked a safety eval­u­a­tion firm that was will­ing to look past the dis­tance rule but en­dorse the pro­ject.

Main­land Chi­nese 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 main­land Chi­nese 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, main­land 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, main­land 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 main­land 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.

Hu­man Neg­li­gence

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 main­land Chi­nese 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.

Main­land Chi­nese 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, main­land 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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