Seven maintenance workers died and another two were hospitalised after being trapped in a waste water tank at a paper mill in the southern city of Dongguan on the evening of 15 February. All nine workers were poisoned by toxic fumes whilst inside the tank, according to official reports.
The incident at the Shuangzhou Paper Company in Dongguan’s Zhongtang township was the latest in a series of accidents involving repair and maintenance workers who were trapped in confined spaces and exposed to poisonous gases.
Workers wearing very basic protective gear at a paper mill in Xi'an. (Photo: china.com.cn)
The risks of carrying out repairs and cleaning work in confined spaces are well-known in China but fatal accidents keep occurring on a regular basis. In July last year, four maintenance workers died and another was injured after inhaling poisonous gas at a water treatment plant in Tianmen, Hubei. Two months earlier, on 24 May, three workers were trapped while repairing a sewage pipeline in Taizhou. When their boss attempted to rescue them, he too became trapped and later died from gas poisoning. In March last year, there were two separate incidents in which three workers died while cleaning gas and sedimentation tanks in Sichuan and Shandong respectively.
China has strict regulations concerning work in confined and enclosed spaces that specify that the work can only be carried out by qualified personnel who have the correct safety equipment, and only after the necessary approvals have been obtained and testing has been completed.
These regulations are routinely re-issued in the wake of tragedies such as the one in Dongguan but to little effect. Many accidents occur when other workers, in clear contravention of regulations and protocol, attempt to rescue their colleagues before the fire department arrives and end up being trapped themselves.
Clearly, simply issuing regulations on repair and maintenance work is no guarantee of worker safety. Stricter enforcement and greater worker involvement in the planning and implementation of safety procedures is necessary. And this is one area where China’s trade unions need to play a far more active role.