Apocalyptic scenes of the smoldering aftermath of successive explosions in Tianjin have once again illustrated the dangers of Chinese industry.
Lax safety procedures and oversight have been blamed for the blasts, which have killed more than 100 people and sent toxic fumes into the air, threatening even greater devastation.
President Xi Jinping has urged authorities to learn from the “extremely profound” lessons from the accident.
The State Council is rolling out a nationwide inspection of all businesses using dangerous chemicals and explosives. Meanwhile, China’s public security minister says those found to be responsible for the Tianjin disaster “will be punished severely,” according to state news agency Xinhua.
The problem is China has seen and heard it all before, and the accidents keep coming, though figures from the Bureau of Statistics suggest that the rate of lethal accidents is falling.
What the figures show
In 2014, 68,061 people died on the job in China, according to the Bureau.
That’s 186 people each day in a country of 1.3 billion – and around 20% of the 350,000 global toll from “occupational accidents,” as measured by the International Labor Organization in 2014.
By comparison, 12 are killed in the U.S. each day, in a country of 320 million, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
The Chinese figures, though, appear to show the number of deaths is declining. For example, work accidents in industrial, mining and commercial sectors caused 1.328 deaths out of every 100,000 employees in 2014, the statistics said, down 12.9% on the previous year.
The figure is still too high for Chinese residents, especially when the accidents repeatedly include the threat of toxic contamination.
Spate of accidents
The blast in Tianjin follows a litany of industrial accidents that have left scores dead, and raised accusations that China has traded safety for cheap and rapid economic growth.
“China’s growth in the chemicals industry has been extremely rapid in the last 15 years or so. It’s grown from being a major importer to being a major producer of almost every single petrochemical you can think of today,” said Ashish Pujari, senior director of IHS Chemical in Singapore.
“There are producers who are known to cut corners, in terms of regulation. There are very blatant examples of people constructing plants and almost getting into production even before the whole project has been approved.
“If you’re to go into the U.S. – the U.S. doesn’t allow a single pile to be driven into the ground unless all the environmental regulations have been met and you have to have approvals for everything,” Pujari added.
In April, an explosion at a paraxylene – or PX – factory in Zhangzhou caused panic as locals feared contamination of the city’s water supplies. It was the second blast at the same site in two years.
The presence of PX near residential areas has lead to protests in other parts of China. PX, used in the production of plastic bottles and polyester clothing, is highly flammable and known to damage the central nervous system on exposure.
In 2013, more than 100 workers died when a huge fire swept through a poultry plant in Dehui. Survivors said the doors were locked, preventing many from escaping.
At the time, state news agency Xinhua noted: “The complicated interior structure of the prefabricated house in which the fire broke out and the narrow exits… added difficulties to the rescue work.”
What was in the Tianjin factory?
The lack of oversight is apparent in the questions being asked about what was being stored in Tianjin warehouse. Chinese authorities say they aren’t sure, as the facility’s managers provided “insufficient information.”
Military inspections at the blast site Sunday revealed “several hundred tons of cyanide material” at two locations, said Major General Shi Luze. Authorities are checking customs records for more clues as to exactly what was being held.
The “cyanide material” was sodium cyanide, a highly toxic substance used to extract precious metals in the mining industry, among other uses.
“Sodium cyanide is a very toxic chemical. It would take about a quarter of teaspoon to kill you. Another problem with sodium cyanide is that it can change into prussic acid, which is even more deadly. So the whole business is trying to clean up this mess is difficult,” chemical risk consultant David Leggett told CNN.
Environmental group Greenpeace said it believed other dangerous chemicals stored at the site included toluene diisocyanate and calcium carbide, citing a local monitoring station.
Leggett said he found it “hard to believe” there were only a handful of different types of chemicals in the Tianjin warehouse: “I would have expected a lot more than that,” he said.
Angry residents demand answers
The questions that linger about exactly what Chinese authorities are dealing with makes the response even more difficult, Leggett added. How far should the exclusion zone extend? What risk is there to water supplies? Could the cleanup itself cause contamination to spread?
Regulations set by the State Administration of Work Safety state that facilities over 550 square meters that handle and store dangerous chemicals must be at least one kilometer away from public buildings and facilities.
It appears that didn’t happen in Tianjin.
Locals are now asking why, after a series of lethal blasts, the Chinese government hasn’t done more to protect them, when the horror of previous disasters are so well known.
After the blasts, the International Labor Organization said in a statement that it was confident the “root causes of the Tianjin accident would be thoroughly investigated and inspire a review of policies on major hazard control in China.”
Pujari from IHS said China needed to improve on all three aspects of safety: regulation, implementation of that regulation, and training for all workers who deal with dangerous chemicals.
“If you had to ask all the (people behind the) investments that have gone up in the last 10 to 15 years to do an audit on a new set of regulations it could be a very big task,” he said.
However, he said “this incident could force the industry and the government to invest in training.”