Factory bosses detained after explosion at Jiangsu auto plant kills 75

Five officials, including two senior executives, from an automotive components plant in Jiangsu have been detained by police in the wake of China’s worst industrial accident so far this year, China’s official media reported.

At least 75 people were killed when an explosion ripped through the wheel hub-polishing workshop at Taiwanese-owned Zhongrong Plating in the industrial city of Kunshan early Saturday morning. More than 180 other employees, working overtime at the time, were injured in the explosion, primarily with burns and respiratory damage caused by smoke inhalation.

The initial investigation into the blast indicated that it was caused by the ignition of metallic dust particles in the workshop. Dust explosions are not uncommon in Chinese factories, where safety measures are rarely enforced and ventilation is often poor.

In August 2012, for example, a dust explosion in an aluminium lock polishing workshop in Wenzhou killed 13 people and injured another 15. And an explosion at a Foxconn plant in Chengdu in May 2011 which killed three and injured 15 others was also believed to have been caused by the build-up of combustible dust in a polishing workshop.

Although the risks of dust explosions were well known at Zhongrong, safety regulations were poorly enforced, one worker at the plant told Xinhua:  “Checks are usual, but after the checks, no one's really following any safety rules,” the worker said.

The labour scholar Wang Jiangsong said on his microblog Sunday that:

The massive factory blast in Kunshan exposes a huge black hole in work safety. The factory failed to install equipment or take any measures to prevent the build-up of dust, the safety inspectors were idle on the job and the local trade unions likewise turned a deaf ear.

It is not known at present if there is an enterprise trade union at Zhongrong or to what extent it had any input in monitoring or maintaining safety standards at the plant.

The Zhongrong explosion is the worst industrial accident in China since 3 June 2013, when 121 workers died as a fire swept through a poultry processing plant in the north-eastern province of Jilin.

Following that disaster, the State Council ordered safety inspections across the country which revealed widespread lapses in factories and the failure of local government officials to properly enforce safety standards.

“Problems are striking, and everywhere, and could cause serious accidents if they are not properly addressed,” Huang Yi, spokesman for the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) said after the inspections.

Inspection teams dispatched by SAWS had arrived at enterprises unannounced and “found a lot of problems - pipelines and wires were substandard, switches were not explosion-proof, and many valves had been rusted and could not be switched on or off,” Huang said.

Huang was particularly critical of the lax enforcement of safety standards by local government officials and stressed that whenever SAWS investigated an accident it always looked into the possibility of corruption and collusion with local government officials.

Huang’s colleague in the SAWS legal affairs department, Li Haowen, added that: “Enterprises must shoulder primary responsibility for safety at work, and the government must fulfil its role of management and supervision.”

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