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Industrial Safety

ChemChina is faulted in deadly accident

A long list of failures led to a blast that killed 24 in November

by Jean-François Tremblay
February 6, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 6

A photo of the aftermath of a deadly chemical plant explosion in China.
Credit: Xinhua News Agency/Newscom
Firefighters battling a blaze after the explosion last November.

Investigators in Hebei in northern China found that managers of a polyvinyl chloride plant where a deadly accident occurred in November grossly ignored safety. The plant, which produces PVC via the acetylene route popular in China, is run by a subsidiary of ChemChina, one of the country’s largest state-owned chemical firms.

In their 37-page report, officials accused leaders of Hebei Shenghua Chemical Industry of initially hiding their company’s responsibility. Investigators also faulted Shenghua managers for allowing production and safety staff to be absent, sleep on the job, and spend hours playing with their mobile phones.

The accident occurred on Nov. 28 when vinyl chloride gas escaped from a tank and ignited, immediately killing 23 people, most of them in vehicles outside the plant. Another person died later in a hospital. According to the government’s report, over 2,000 m3 of vinyl chloride leaked.

An overly thinned tank seal was the direct cause of the leak, the government investigators found. But the faulty seal would have been easily noticed if Shenghua staff had been regularly inspecting equipment.

Shenghua managers paid almost no attention to safety, according to the report. Line staff had little safety training, standard operating procedures to manage safety did not exist, and managers in charge of safety lacked independence.

Government investigators also faulted the local police force for allowing an illegal parking business to operate next to the plant. The presence of the parking lot made the death toll worse, officials found.

Investigators recommended suspending Shenghua’s operating license. Since the accident, they noted, 12 Shenghua staffers, including the firm’s general manager, have been under criminal investigation. In addition, 15 ChemChina employees will be subject to “party discipline,” meaning that they will likely be fined or expelled from the Chinese Communist Party.


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