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The double explosion that looks like it has killed more than 200 in the northeastern port of Tianjin is but the latest shocking event in a series of industrial accidents that have continued to plague China over the years. In August 2014, for example, dust triggered an explosion at a factory in Kunshan that supplied auto parts to GM and other car makers, killing at least 146 people. And in December 2013, at least 35 people were killed and 166 others injured after a leaking pipeline caught fire and exploded at a Sinopec petrochemical plant in the coastal city of Qingdao.

August 17, 2015

3 Min Read
The Tianjin explosion: time to learn some safety lessons?


The Tianjin twin explosions will hopefully serve as a
wakeup call to address work safety in China.

But the latest catastrophe is of particular concern from a number of perspectives. Firstly, it appears that the operator of the storage facility where the deadly cocktail of calcium carbide, potassium nitrate, ammonium nitrate and deadly sodium cyanide were stored—Rui Hai International Logistics, for the record—may have been illegally transporting chemicals. There appears to be a mismatch between official customs data and the company's own records. The 700 tons of sodium cyanide on site was reportedly 70 times the allowable amount. This highlights a trend in China whereby although companies may be duly licensed by local authorities to carry out activities such as hazmat storage, enforcement is often lacking, if existing at all.

Secondly, this "hazmat storage facility" was located just 800 yards or so away from the nearest residential apartment complex. The twin blast shattered windows as far as 2.5 miles away. One must question why such dangerous materials could be stored so close to a populated area.

And thirdly, the brave firefighters sent to contain earlier fires that started in containers at the site may have unwittingly set off the terrible chain of events by using water in an attempt to douse the initial flames. There is a theory that the initial explosion, equivalent to 3 tons of TNT, was sparked by a deadly reaction of the water with calcium carbide, generating acetylene gas (calcium carbide is widely used in China for the production of PVC resin). This acetylene inferno then set off the blast of the nitrate compounds, used as raw materials for explosives and fertilizers, equivalent to 21 tons of TNT. The fire department must be called into question with regards to its training practices.

China's top prosecutor, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, has opened an investigation into the warehouse explosions and "will look into possible illegal acts, such as abuse of power or dereliction of duty and deal with those acts which may constitute crimes," the state news agency Xinhua reported. And while the State Council is out with its customary post-accident rhetoric, issuing an emergency notice ordering a nationwide examination of dangerous chemicals and explosives and calling on authorities around the country to "learn bitter lessons from the two massive blasts, and to crack down unwaveringly on illegal activities to ensure safety," in all likelihood Chinese companies will probably continue to place priority on profits rather than worker safety. In other words, it's business as usual.

Meanwhile, as is the case with any sensitive event occurring locally, the Chinese government deployed its best efforts to control the media narrative surrounding the incident. Reportedly, 50 websites were punished for "spreading Tianjin blast rumors," and close to 400 Weibo and WeChat accounts (Twitter equivalents in China) were shut down if state media reports are to be believed.

In the words of Mitchell Baker, Chairperson of the Mozilla Foundation, "Openness is critical for the human experience, critical to problem solving." One hopes that moving forward, China may transition to such a society where ideas can be exchanged and debated, and workers can carry out their jobs in the knowledge that they can do so in a safe and secure environment.

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