Kunshan blast exposes OSH concerns

Sectoral report

Kunshan blast exposes OSH concerns

A tragedy triggered by dust

On 2 August 2014, an explosion took place at Zhongrong Metal Production Company (hereafter Zhongrong Co.) in Kunshan City, Jiangsu Province. 75 workers were killed and 185 were injured. After two days of investigation, Yang Dongliang, the head of China's State Administration of Work Safety, announced that the blast was triggered by a spark that had ignited a dust-filled room. This accident also shows that local government has failed to keep work safety intact.

Trading off work safety for investment.

After the explosion, a Chinese newspaper, China Economics Weekly. reported on the Kunshan Government, a county-level city government's logic in drawing investment. Since 1985, it has been pro-actively looking for foreign investment, including advertising itself with an article written by its county chief in Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao. In the article he wrote that:

Kunshan people are hospitable and we welcome you (investors). The more you “exploit” us, the happier the people in Kunshan are. We are grateful to those who help bring in investment, and we treat investors as our family members. Those with high capability can make room for investment and those who harm investment are sinners”.

With this attitude, Kunshan City has attracted over 4,000 Taiwanese enterprises in the past two decades. Zhongrong Co., owned solely by Taiwanese, arrived in Kunshan in 1998. Foreign investment accounts for 50% of Kunshan's revenue, yet labour conditions and OSH are neglected. The mainland Chinese media, Wuyou Zhi Xiang, made a list of violations of Zhongrong Co. and criticized the Kunshan Government for intentionally accommodating and conniving in these illegal acts.

Workplace traps exposed by the blast.

Labour conditions and OSH standards at Zhongrong Co. are extremely rough. After the explosion, workers gave detailed accounts to the media.

According to Ms Jiang, who polishes aluminum products at Zhongrong Co.,

“By noontime, our workstation would be covered by a layer of dust, about the thickness of a coin. Each workstation has a dust extraction tube, but there is more dust than it can handle. The production unit is cleaned once per day at lunchtime, but it doesn't help. Once we resume working, the room is rapidly filled with dust again. When we eat, our bodies are covered by dust; we look like we are freshly out of a brick kiln. Only our teeth are white. There is a saying in our factory, 'if you don't take a shower at night, you look like a ghost.'”

Ms Jiang's husband joined Zhongrong Co. in 2005 and suddenly fell sick in 2012.

“He vomited a lot of blood and then his nostrils bled.” He was diagnosed with “dust-borne infection”. Back in 2010, some workers hung out a banner at the factory gate stating, “Irresponsibility after causing (workers) lung diseases, it is intolerable”.

Other workers have also confirmed that the plant has neither installed explosion-proof anti-static devices or dust-monitors to give off alarms when the dust concentration reaches a certain level. The factory only offers workers face masks and gloves once a week. Workers work 14 to 15 hours per day and have one or two days off per month.

Concerns expressed by industrial relations scholars.

Chinese industrial relations academics then released an open letter, calling for workers to be given the the rights to supervise work safety. Some even pointed out that between 16 and 25 July 2014, less than one month before the blast, Kunshan City had conducted a specific action to examine and conduct remediation of work safety, covering the city. The project was reported full compliance with safety regulations. This leads one to believe that the work safety supervision bureau has turned a blind eye to unlawful practice and a heavy price is paid by workers.

Seven labour organizations and trade unions have issued an open statement, calling for the client of Zhongrong Co., CITIC Dicastal Co. Ltd., to bear the lifelong medical treatment costs of injured workers and to compensate the victims' families as required by law. They also demand the Supreme People's Procuratorate, Kunshan City Government and Jiangsu Provincial Government investigate the causes and responsibilities in detail. The investigation report should be made public with proposals and implementation plans to prevent accidents in future.