China’s Pressing Need To Prevent Industrial Accidents

Landslide at industrial zone in Shenzhen, December 2015

The deadly landslide that engulfed part of the Hengtaiyu Industrial Park in Shenzhen was, on the basis of the early reports, a man-made disaster. It would appear that a mountain of mud composed of illegally dumped construction waste piled up over a quarry over the past two years became unstable. It then, in the parlance of civil engineers, ‘spilled over’.

A torrent of soil slammed into 33 industrial and dormitory buildings just before noon, and also ruptured the West-to-East natural gas pipeline causing an explosion. Some 900 people evacuated. Three are said to have been injured, but at least 91 were reported missing as of Monday morning, presumably buried under the mud that is estimated to cover more than 60,000 square meters to a depth of 6 meters (see photo above).

The attention the massive rescue effort is getting from the highest levels —  President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have sent urgent instructions to provincial and local authorities — indicates the political threat such disasters potentially hold — and underlines the shortcomings in the approach to hazard management.

Complaints by residents about illegal dumping went unheard or were ignored by Shenzhen officials. Shoddy building compounded the damage. The two factors exacerbate a view that untrammeled economic development has been at the expense of citizen well-being.

That is not a view that the Party can tolerate. In this case, local officials will, no doubt, be found to take the blame. In the longer-term, industrial safety legislation will have to be enforced to prevent industrial accidents taking the toll they currently do.

The Shenzhen landslide was just as much a man-made disaster as the series of massive blasts at a hazardous-materials warehouse in Tianjin that killed more than 100 people in August or the explosion that ripped through a chemical factory in Changzhou in Jiangsu Province earlier in the month. Or the fireball at a petrochemical factory in Rizhao in Shandong Province the previous month. Or the succession of accidents in China’s mines stretching back. At least 750 people have died in industrial accidents in the construction, manufacturing and mining sectors this year.

Employers will always push the boundaries of health and safety legislation — of which China has plenty. But it requires diligent local officials to enforce those rules. Of those, China is lacking.

The most effective industrial safety policy is a preventative health and safety culture.  Good practice on work safety standardization is more prevalent than it was a  decade ago, but it remains the exception rather than the rule. And it requires resources and political will at the local level to enforce it. We wish the extraordinary rescue effort in Shenzhen every success, but residents would have been better served by it not being necessary in the first place.

Sadly, we fear we will be saying the same after the next large industrial accident, and repeating it until the political attitude changes to one that says the Party best shows that it is looking after citizens by preventing preventable industrial accidents in the first place rather than by rushing to clean up the mess afterwards.

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