China Factory Explosion Kills 68 Workers

An explosion at a metal products factory in Kunshan, China, has killed at least 68 workers and left nearly 200 more injured with burns over 80 to 90 percent of their bodies.

The BBC has reported that the factory, which employs 450 workers, belongs to the Kunshan Zhongrong Metal Products Company, has contracts with large automobile manufacturers like General Motors.

In a workshop where wheel hubs are polished, 264 workers were present when a flame was lit in the aluminum dust-filled shop, creating an explosion that shattered glass in a guard house 500 meters away and could be heard at a distance of several kilometers. Forty-four workers died in the direct blast.

Kunshan, located in the wealthy, eastern coastal province of Jiangsu, is a heavily industrialized area, where factories employ Chinese workers who often live on-site in dormitories. It is located an hour’s drive from Shanghai.

The preliminary investigation suggests that the explosion happened at about 7:30 am., local time, and was caused by negligence. Five factory officials are being held by authorities for questioning about the shop’s ventilation system. Workers from other factories in the same industrial park hurried out of their dormitories to find plumes of black smoke filling the air and injured people running from the auto parts workshop.

Ambulances and the media arrived as families rushed to the site, hoping their loved ones weren’t among the dead or severely injured.

According to Australia Network News, Chinese state television is showing scenes of wrecked walls and heavy machinery that was thrown through the window of the destroyed factory, but within only hours of the explosion, the aging shop’s exterior had been cleaned and cordoned off. The only remaining signs of trouble were a row of fire trucks parked in the area.

The Chinese government will send Wang Yong, a state councilor, to serve as a representative of Beijing as the investigation continues. Kunshan Zhongrong, also called Zhongrong Plating, is owned by an unidentified foreign investor. The Guardian reports that no one at the company or at General Motors in China could be reached for immediate comment.

China has a poor record on work place safety despite its position as the world’s second-largest economy. The coastal provinces are the location for many factories that hold contracts with international companies. Kunshan is known for being a center of Taiwanese investment. The foreign owner of the factory will be held accountable, but in an area where safety regulations are hard to enforce and workers’ unions do not exist, there’s little hope that anything will change.

In recent years, the Chinese government has worked to enforce occupational safety standards for the workers, many of whom are uneducated and ill-equipped migrants from rural provinces, but figures released last year suggest that industrial accidents such as this one claim about 70,000 lives annually.

The New York Times claims that the Zhongrong plant had received employee complaints recently about poor ventilation in the polishing workshops, where combustible metal dust accumulates. The build-up of metal dust is a known safety hazard; in 2011, a plant explosion in Chengdu was responsible for the death of three workers when dust created while making iPads for Apple exploded.

Safety standards are often paltry or nonexistent in the region’s industrial parks. Last year, The Inquisitr reported that 119 people died in a poultry plant fire when, it is said, the managers locked the doors to prevent workers from leaving for toilet breaks. It also follows closely on the heels of an explosion in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung, where a gas pipeline blew and killed at least 26 people.

This newest explosion is being called the worst Chinese industrial accident in a year.

[Image Courtesy of Reuters]

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