On 4 October 2004, an explosion at the Changliang Firecrackers Factory in Pubei County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, killed no fewer than 37 workers. The blast destroyed three workshops, tore down the roofs of nearby houses and left the surrounding area strewn with bodies and rubble.
Nearly half of all the fireworks produced in China fail to meet basic quality and safety standards, a recent inspection conducted on 120 fireworks manufacturing enterprises from seven provinces in China by the State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine has found.
According to Zhang Guanghua, director of the Chemical Safety Supervision and Management Department under the State Administration of Work Safety, "The production and standards of many small and medium-sized fireworks producers in townships and villages do not meet state requirements." Fireworks safety standards are a major concern for the people in China, she added, as it is a traditional Chinese practice to celebrate festive seasons with firework displays.
The official investigation found that only 56.7 per cent of the fireworks checked had met the approved quality standards. And among 120 brands of fireworks assessed, 36.7 per cent were found to have defective blasting fuses, creating a high risk of premature explosion and injury. Another major problem identified in the survey was the widespread use of banned inflammable or explosive chemicals in making the fireworks.
One-fifth of the inspected products were found to have safety defects that could make them explode or detonate too close to the ground. The packaging of 19 of the brands was also found to have defects that could lead to accidents during transportation or storage.
The fireworks industry employs tens of thousands of people, many of them from the poorest parts of China. They do most of the work by hand, often at home or in small village workshops. According to Zhang Guohua, "These workshops are to be phased out or developed into more advanced factories." She added that five new national standards on fireworks’ production will come into effect in March, in an effort to ensure better safety and quality standards in the industry.
On 1 February, three of the managers and contractors responsible for the Guangxi fireworks factory disaster of last October were sentenced to terms of up to seven years’ imprisonment for employing prohibited materials. Ma Dezhong and Huang Xiujuan were jailed for seven and three years respectively, while another manager, Ma Jing, received a five-year term. The sentences came as factories around the country rushed to fill orders for firecrackers to celebrate the Lunar New Year – the peak period for reports of deaths in fires and explosions.
The explosion at the Changliang Firecrackers Factory was the third accident to have occurred in fireworks factories in Pubei County between May and October 2004. On 20 August 2004, an explosion occurred at a fireworks factory there in which the factory manager was killed by falling rubble. In May 2004, another blast at an illegal fireworks factory in the same town killed two workers and injured about ten others. Two children who were playing in the rubble after the initial blast were also injured when some of the remaining explosives ignited.
Although the death toll of firework accidents in China is much lower than that of coalmine disasters, a total of 322 people died in officially-reported firework explosions alone last year – 67 more fatalities compared with 2003, according to government statistics. The real figure is undoubtedly much higher. Other reported major accidents at fireworks factories in the past few years include the following:
- On 27 and 28 January 2005, three firework explosions took place in Hengshui, Xingtai and Dingzhou cities in Hebei Province killing nine people in total. All three explosions were caused by illegal firework production.
- On 11 January 2005, an explosion occurred at Xianglu Firecracker Factory in Xiangfen County, Shanxi Province, claiming the lives of 25 workers and injuring nine others. Most of the victims were female temporary workers.
- In mid-September 2004, 11 female workers were killed at Hedong Fireworks Factory in Hekou Township, Hunan Province.
- An explosion at the Safe Environment Friendly Fireworks Company Ltd in Changtu County, Liaoning Province, on 30 December 2003 killed 36 workers and left 32 others injured. The company owner, Chen Jicheng, was sentenced to death on 22 December 2004 for illegally producing explosives and causing the explosion, while the factory’s general manager, You Tao, was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for illegally producing explosives.
- In July and August 2003, four separate explosions occurred in several fireworks factories in Hebei, Fujian, Zhejiang and Guizhou provinces within a single week, killing at least 31 workers. The accidents raised concern about the use of child labour in the production of fireworks, since it was found that the youngest worker in one of the factories was a 15-year-old girl.