Wall Street Journal: Deadly Explosions Highlight China Workplace Dangers

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher

Sept. 1, 2015

BEIJING—A second deadly chemical blast in a month is shining a spotlight on workplace accidents in China, where worker deaths still number in the tens of thousands annually.

The latest blast, late Monday in the city of Dongying in the country’s northeastern Shandong province, killed at least five people, according to state media. Photos circulating on social media early Tuesday showed an enormous fireball erupting into the sky.

The cause wasn’t clear. Local officials said an investigation had begun and six parties have been placed under administrative control. A person answering the phones at the company that owns the facility, Shandong Binyuan Chemical Ltd., declined to comment.

Less than a month ago, explosions in Tianjin killed at least 158 people and turned parts of the prosperous port city into a scene reminiscent of a war zone. Most of the dead were firefighters who had been working to contain a blaze when the explosions occurred.

The number of workplace fatalities in China last year came to 68,061—about 186 a day—according to government statistics. That was down 2% from 2013 and 5.4% from 2012.

“More than 60,000 fatalities a year is still outrageously high, even for a country the size of China,” says Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based workers’ rights group.

Job-related deaths in the U.S. in 2013 totaled 4,585, or less than 13 a day.

A series of deadly explosions over the past three years has highlighted China’s workplace problems, even as the government makes strides in cleaning up hazardous industries like mining. In August 2014, at least 75 people were killed when a car-parts factory exploded in the eastern industrial city of Kunshan. Authorities later cited inadequate ventilation.

The previous year, 62 were killed when an oil pipeline exploded in the city of Qingdao in Shandong province. That same year, at least 119 people died in a poultry-plant fire in the northeastern city of Dehui following a reported ammonia leak.

Chinese workplaces—including coal mines, factories and construction sites—have been the scene of 39 explosions since December, according to China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based research group, which has begun tracking such incidents. It defines an explosion as a conflagration combined with force that affects three or more workers.

Last year, China revised its Workplace Safety Law, increasing the fines that can be levied on companies that violate the rules. The burden had long been minimal. Before last year’s revision, an employer who failed to provide workplace-safety training or to carry out required safety corrections could be fined no more than 20,000 yuan ($3,136).

In many cases, concerns about workplace safety entwine with concerns about corruption. The two founders of the company whose Tianjin warehouse exploded have notable political connections. One is the son of a former head of the port’s security bureau.

A University of Southern California study of publicly traded Chinese companies in hazardous industries found that workplace death rates between 2008 and 2013 were two to three times as high at companies with political connections—that is, with at least one executive who had previously held a high-level government post—as at unconnected ones.

“If you have good connections, you can save on costs,” said study co-author Yongxiang Wang, an assistant professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “You can try and bypass regulations and you don’t have to build such safe facilities.”

The official Xinhua News Agency said late last year that in the first 11 months of 2014, 1,613 people were punished following workplace-safety incidents, including 509 who faced criminal charges.

China’s safety record has improved in certain sectors. In coal mining, notably, accidents dropped by some 12% in 2014, according to Xinhua, and this year more than 2,000 small, more dangerous mines were scheduled for closure.

—Fanfan Wang
contributed to this article.

Write to Te-Ping Chen at te-ping.chen@wsj.com

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