A dramatic uptick in the frequency of deadly gas explosions has affected workers and the public alike across China. Lax administrative enforcement and valuing profit over safety are the main contributors to this trend. To protect human life, CLB recommends that China’s trade union take concrete steps to monitor workplaces and involve workers in accident prevention measures.
China’s national gas accident analysis reports show a downward trend in the number of incidents, from 925 in 2017 to 615 in 2020. However, in the first half of 2021 alone, there were 544 gas accidents. As CLB finds little to no signs that the situation since the start of the second half of 2021 has improved, the downward trend since 2017 is short-lived.
In our Work Accident Map, China Labour Bulletin tracks and categorises workplace accidents reported in official media and from other online sources. The purpose of the map is not to record every single work accident, but to provide a qualitative dimension to the anonymous statistics issued by the government. Our analysis of recent gas accidents in China reveals consistent patterns, but also some clear solutions, to this grave problem.
Gas pipeline leaks: construction issues and ageing pipes
From 2017 to 2021, gas pipeline leaks averaged more than 200 a year. In most cases, leaking gas either ignites at the construction site or passes through a confined space underground and enters nearby premises before exploding.
For example, one of the most deadly accidents in recent years in terms of casualties was a gas explosion that occurred at a community market in the city of Shiyan, in Hubei province. On June 13, 2021, gas leaking from an underground pipe gathered under the market building. When the gas encountered a spark from the exhaust fume pipe of a restaurant, it ignited. The explosion killed 26 people, injured 138, and left the market in shambles.
Similar explosive accidents due to gas pipe leaks have occurred in hospitals, restaurants, and supermarkets.
According to statistics on the WeChat public account of Ranqi Ranzha, which monitors gas explosions, "construction damage" was the most common cause of pipeline leaks for five consecutive years. The National Gas Accident Analysis Report data show that “third-party” construction damage is the leading cause. "Third-party" refers to construction companies other than gas companies. In many cases, those engaging in subway construction projects and other municipal projects including water, heat or power may accidentally damage underground gas pipelines during construction.
According to Jiemian News reports, rushed construction schedules and the involvement of various construction crews conducting work in old neighbourhoods have increased the probability of accidents. A gas company employee pointed out that teams could not implement construction designs in many projects in these areas. They sometimes compromise on project quality to meet deadlines, resulting in underground pipes being dug up and occasionally broken.
"For example, a water company may slightly impact or damage a gas pipeline while digging up a road,” [the employee told Jiemian News]. “If there is no immediate danger, they will quickly bury it and not say anything."
In addition, substandard construction by gas companies is another cause of accidents. Many projects have multiple layers of subcontracting, leading to illegal subcontracting to unqualified builders.
On June 10, 2018, a leakage and gas explosion occurred in the Shazi Town section of a China-Myanmar natural gas pipeline in Qinglong County, Guizhou province. Poor pipeline welding skills were the cause of the explosion, which caused one death and 23 injuries. According to the accident investigation report, the project was undertaken by China Petroleum Pipeline Engineering (CPP) No. 3 Construction Company. However, the project was illegally subcontracted to a certain Mr. Wang, who in turn subcontracted the portion of the project containing the section where the accident occurred to another subcontractor, Mr. Li, who lacked construction qualifications.
On October 21, 2021, a gas accident occurring in Shenyang, Liaoning province, caused five deaths and 52 injuries. In this case, construction workers had failed to effectively seal the connections between the pipes. According to the accident investigation report, this project was won by Dalian Jiangong Electric-Machinery Installation Co., Ltd. (Dalian Construction Engineering). The company illegally subcontracted the work to a Mr. Jia, allowing him to use Dalian Construction Engineering's qualification certificate and business licence to undertake the project.
The ageing and corrosion of pipelines is also a contributing factor. This was the case in the 2021 Shiyan accident. The same year, several other gas accidents occurred in Liaoning province. Jiemian News reported that most cities in Liaoning have a long history of gas pipeline networks, many of them overdue for service.
In January 2022, the Ministry of Emergency Management held a press conference highlighting the recent increase in gas use across China. The majority of gas pipelines were built 20 years ago, with 100,000 km of ageing urban gas pipelines nationwide. According to China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, about 12 percent of all urban gas pipelines are planned to be upgraded before 2025.
Accidents in restaurants are due in part to pipeline leaks, but they are more commonly the result of leaking liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders. The causes include improper use, such as forgetting to close the valve of LPG cylinders or using cylinders that do not meet regulations.
Other causes include the commercial sale of illegally altered or expired LPG cylinders, and the illegal installation of gas burners that are not up to code. On October 13, 2019, an LPG cylinder explosion occurred at Shuangle Snack Shop in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, killing nine people and injuring 10. The causes in this case included the use of non-compliant LPG cylinders, detached hoses, and improper installation of gas burners.
Additionally, because natural gas and LPG are colourless and odourless, leaks are not easily detectable. In interviews, gas safety experts have said that although odorants are added to natural gas pipelines, allowing gas to be detected in the home, odours in a kitchen are more complex and may inhibit gas detection.
Domestic law provides that gas leak detectors must be installed by production and operation units in the catering and other industries (Article 36 of the Work Safety Law). However, a staff member at the Ministry of Emergency Management said in an interview that although businesses such as hotels and restaurants currently have a relatively high rate of compliance, there are no mandatory requirements for installation in cafeterias of government institutions and companies.
An illustration of the costs of this loophole is that on January 7, 2022, an office cafeteria on Fengshan Street in Chongqing's Wulong District collapsed due to a suspected gas leak explosion.
There were 53 gas transportation related accidents in 2020, and 50 more occurred during the first half of 2021 alone. Information collected from news sources shows causes of the accidents included speeding drivers and long working hours.
Gas leaks and explosions are often caused when speeding trucks overturn. On June 13, 2020, in Wenling, Zhejiang province, an LPG transport tanker overturned and exploded, causing 20 deaths and 175 injuries. The management of the company involved did not have a safety qualification certificate and failed to implement the required dynamic GPS monitoring system.
Accidents can also be caused by businesses neglecting safety by requiring long hours and intensive work. On June 5, 2017, a tanker truck transporting LPG in Linyi, Shandong province, leaked and exploded into flames during unloading operations, resulting in 10 deaths and nine injuries. More than ten tankers were entering the unloading site simultaneously, and the unloading area had been operating on a 24-hour basis.
The company involved, Linyi Jinyu Petrochemical Co. Ltd., did not conduct a risk assessment of the loading and unloading area. Moreover, the processing of liquefied raw materials at the site increased by two-thirds following an expansion of production capacity. Despite these changes, the company continued to use tanker trucks for loading and unloading, adding risk on top of risk.
Additionally, several accidents occur each year at transportation depots. Most happen when the vehicle is being refuelled. Not much information is available about these types of incidents.
The China Labour Bulletin's Accident Map indicates that one to three factory gas leaks have occurred each year for the last five years. These accidents are more frequent in steel smelting and other industrial factories, primarily due to blast furnace operations or gas pipe leaks. On September 27, 2021, in Liaoning province, a gas leak due to power supply problems at Liaoning Penghui Casting Co. Ltd. caused an equipment shutdown. Twenty-three people were sent to the hospital with gas poisoning.
Other plants have seen gas accidents due to power issues. On December 19, 2017, an explosion occurred at the production plant of Shandong Rike Chemical Co. Ltd. in Weifang, Shandong province, resulting in seven deaths and four injuries. The production plant had hastily converted from coal to gas. After switching from a coal-fired hot air furnace to a gas-fired hot air furnace without formal design and inspection, the gas leaked into the drying system and an explosion occurred.
On December 3, 2019, a gas explosion occurred in the Beijing production plant of Beijing Jingri Dongda Food Co. Ltd., resulting in four deaths and 10 injuries. Faulty material corroded by LPG in the flange gasket of the gas pipeline led to leaks over an extended period of time.
Solutions: Improve enforcement of safety laws and value life over profit
The drive by corporations for profit at the expense of safety is the underlying cause of many gas accidents. Companies often subcontract work to unqualified parties to save costs, or require workers to work long and strenuous hours. After the explosion in Shiyan, Hubei province in June 2021, Caixin conducted a special report, finding that China Gas Holdings Ltd. had failed to update and renovate pipelines after taking on the project. The company ignored safety hazards such as ageing and corroding pipelines, and it passed pipelines through confined spaces underground.
China Gas similarly ignored safety issues when involved in the government's "coal-to-gas" project. A study CLB released in 2019 documented one case of this. In our investigation, we found that in September 2017, migrant workers laid gas transmission pipelines for a China Gas coal-to-gas conversion project in six villages in Tianjin's Jizhou District. Workers reported that they suspected China Gas was involved in illegal multi-layer subcontracting, resulting in unlawful delays and withholding of workers' wages. Moreover, the workers were concerned that, because China Gas had never issued work safety guidelines for construction quality, coal-to-gas conversion project customers might face safety issues in the future.
Another institutional cause of gas accidents is lax enforcement of laws and regulations by local government departments. According to Caixin, a number of gas industry sources have said that wages and benefits for workers in the industry are low and staff turnover is high. Workers may be untrained, lacking experience or the relevant professional skills. Moreover, local gas authorities have insufficient manpower and limited understanding of the industry, while the downstream infrastructure is complex, making regulation extremely difficult. As a result, government regulations on enforcement and corporate policies are just a formality.
Last November, the State Council Work Safety Committee published a document entitled, "Special Rectification Work Program for National Urban Gas Safety" (Work Program). The Committee proposed to strictly regulate gas enterprises' safety qualifications to eliminate inconsistencies, project subcontracting practices, maintenance of gas pipelines and safety supervision and enforcement.
In January 2022, the Ministry of Emergency Management announced that it would work with the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and other departments to study the formulation of the State Council’s Work Program.
In light of these clear patterns of accidents and lack of enforcement, CLB urges that China’s official trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, should more proactively assert its rights under China’s Work Safety Law to monitor gas safety at key types of workplaces.
The ACFTU should organize workers from different regions and industries - such as construction, catering, and manufacturing - and train workers on gas safety procedures. This would enable the union to mobilise workers to identify safety hazards, inform enterprises and government departments, and demand safety improvements.
If these prevention measures are not enough, China’s work safety laws allow for the union to organize workers to evacuate dangerous work sites without fear of losing their jobs.