Short circuit the cause but negligence ultimately to blame for factory fire that killed 121

22 June 2013

A short circuit was identified Friday as the primary cause of the fire that killed 121 workers at the Baoyuanfeng poultry plant early this month, but officials later conceded that negligence was ultimately to blame.

Investigators determined that an electrical short ignited combustible material which then set off a series of explosions in ammonia equipment and pipelines at the factory, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

However, it seems certain that many if not all the 121 lives lost on the morning of 3 June could have been saved if proper fire safety measures were in place. Only one exit in the factory was open at the time of the fire and 395 people were working inside. None of the workers had been given any fire safety training, and safety officials described conditions at the plant as “extremely chaotic,” the Associated Press reported.

The Baoyuanfeng disaster, together with several other workplace fires at the time, led to China’s State Council ordering safety inspections across the country. The results so far have revealed widespread lapses and, in particular, the failure of local government officials to properly enforce safety standards.

Problems are striking, and everywhere, and could cause serious accidents if they are not properly addressed,” Huang Yi, spokesman for the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) was quoted by the China Daily as saying.

Inspection teams dispatched by SAWS had arrived at enterprises unannounced and “found a lot of problems - pipelines and wires were substandard, switches were not explosion-proof, and many valves had been rusted and could not be switched on or off,” Huang said.

Huang was particularly critical of the lax enforcement of safety standards by local government officials and stressed that whenever SAWS investigated an accident it always looked into the possibility of corruption and collusion with local government officials.

Huang’s colleague in the SAWS legal affairs department, Li Haowen, added that: “Enterprises must shoulder primary responsibility for safety at work, and the government must fulfil its role of management and supervision.”

However, as CLB pointed out in a commentary in the South China Morning Post on 11 June, it should be the responsibility of everyone, not just factory managers and government officials but the trade union, civil society and most importantly the workers themselves, to ensure safety at work. In short, a fundamental change in work culture is needed, where safety really does come first.

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