Exploding safety norms

Print edition : September 01, 2001

An explosion at Tamil Nadu Industrial Explosives Ltd. in Katpadi brings to the fore concerns about industrial and worker safety.

AT an explosives factory, the very thought of an explosion can be a nightmare. The nightmare came true on August 16 at Tamil Nadu Industrial Explosives Limited (TEL) near Katpadi, about 140 km from Chennai, when one of its units was torn apart by a massive explosion. Twenty-five workers, mostly Dalits, died and three were injured in the worst industrial accident in recent memory in Tamil Nadu. Among the dead were 12 casual workers.

TEL's detonator production unit that was reduced to rubble.-K. PICHUMANI

The accident raises disturbing questions about the lack of attention to safe industrial practices. The widespread use of casual labour in industry and the implications of this practice, for safety are also in focus. The fact that the accident happened at a State government-owned unit has added to these concerns.

The explosion, which was heard several kilometres away; occurred at about 9.25 a.m., as the workers had settled in for the first shift in the detonator production unit. The hall, measuring 200 ft by 100 ft, was flattened. Mangled bodies, some of them merely torsos, lay under the debris. The live detonators lying under the debris made the firemen's task a daunting one. However, there were no more explosions. Several workers gathered to help with the task of retrieving bodies.

The explosion happened when detonators were being "crimped". After the fuse is inserted manually into a detonator shell, pressure is applied to the top of the shell using a pneumatically controlled machine to crimp it. This ensures that the detonator is sealed.

The crimping process is one of the relatively safer processes in the plant, L.K. Tripathy, chairman and managing director, TEL, told Frontline. To ensure safety the fuse is brought from the fuse stores and the live detonator from another section. The worker inserts the fuse into the detonator and then puts it into the machine for crimping. The workers gather the material from the storage area and settle down at their cubicles, each of which is partitioned by a thick iron slab, a precaution meant to ensure that an accident in one cubicle does not extend to the rest of the work area. The hall housed 22 cubicles, one for each worker. Apart from the supervisor, another person may have been in the hall carrying the material for the workers.

According to an informed source, "something happened" closer to the stack where the workers had gathered detonators for the first cycle of work, which had just started. There are normally two cycles in a work shift. About 20,000 detonators and fuses had been gathered into a stack near one of the two entrances to the building. The supervisor was a trainee, and his head was blown off, indicating that he was sitting near the stack. A crater near the spot where the live detonators were gathered also lent credence to the theory that the first stage of the accident happened near the stack.

A body being removed from the debris.-K. PICHUMANI

"Something happened near the stack. Two workers may have collided while handling the material and the material fell on to the stack," a source in the factory told Frontline. Two bodies were found facing opposite directions, probably indicating that they collided when they were carrying the material, the source said. Workers in the factory described the initial sound as something akin to that from a serial firecracker.This was followed by a big bang and then another bang, probably that of the collapsing building.

An explosives expert avers that the "lack of motivation" of casual workers could have contributed to the accident. He said that a mistake could have occurred either while "handling, carrying or storing the explosives". However, he added that nothing concrete could be said about what led to the explosion. Although the police are still investigating the disaster, they are inclined to blame "negligent workers" for it.

Tripathy confirmed that "storing" material inside the work spot is "standard practice". He said work in the factory was being done in batches. However, he told Frontline, the company is now examining the work processes to see whether the crimping has to be done in two halls instead of one.

Tripathy said that all workers in the factory are required to wear only cotton clothing to guard against the possibility of setting off an electrostatic charge. "We are now examining all aspects of safety to find out any loopholes," he said.

T.R. Purushottaman, district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), says that the company's safety record has been poor. "This accident was waiting to happen," he said. He told Frontline that such a large number of detonators need not have been in the hall. At the most, at the rate of about 100-200 detonators per worker, the maximum number inside the hall should not have been more than 5,000. Purushottaman alleges that at least 40,000 detonators were inside the hall.

Workers also told Frontline that some of those in the hall had complained of sparks from detonators as they started work that day. The workers are reported to have expressed their fears to the trainee supervisor. Trade union sources also alleged that work was "expedited" on the day of the accident, ostensibly to meet an export order. They said this could have led to the lowering of safety levels. Sources told Frontline that the company was meeting an export order for supply to the defence establishment in Syria. However, Tripathy said the export order did not require that processes be hastened in the plant.

Four separate inquiries into the accident are currently on. There is a statutory inquiry by the Chief Controller of Explosives (CCE), Nagpur. A second inquiry is by the District Revenue Officer, under the provisions of the Explosives Act. The police are inquiring too. And the company is conducting its own probe, with the help of two external experts. Although the factory reopened on August 22, Tripathy said production would resume only after obtaining clearance from the CCE.

Among the dead was P. Bhavani, who had just stepped out of an adjacent block but was felled by a concrete block. She had been employed on humanitarian grounds after the death of her husband, who was a TEL employee. The surviving family consists of six daughters.

The families of the casual workers are particularly vulnerable after the tragedy. Most of the dead workers had been married for just two or three years. Informed sources said J. Jeyakumar (29) joined TEL as a casual worker a month before the accident. Although he held a master's degree in commerce, he did not reveal this fact to the company for fear of being rejected on the grounds of being over-qualified.

The area around Katpadi is dry. The life of the peasantry is difficult, particularly for the marginal farmers owning small plots of land. The condition of the agricultural workers, mostly Dalits, is even worse. Not surprisingly, the incidence of child labour is high. Children are primarily used as cheap labour in the beedi industry. There have also been reports of bonded labour, in the stone quarries, in North Arcot district. TEL is an oasis in this otherwise bleak situation.

The population of Dalits is high in the area. Although some of the Dalit regular workers in TEL have managed to improve their lifestyle, the casual workers mostly live in the "colonies" in the surrounding villages. For a Dalit casual worker life is a double ignominy. In the village he is socially excluded. At the workplace too the Dalit casual worker is at the bottom of the ladder. His tenure is uncertain and wages are low.

The government announced that the families of the regular workers would be eligible for insurance benefits amounting to Rs.3.74 lakhs, apart from the other benefits and dues. It also announced that the families of casual workers would get Rs.75,000 as insurance benefits from insurance companies. However, Purushottaman expressed doubts whether the workers had, in fact, been enrolled in the casual Group Insurance Scheme in order to be able to claim the money. Pointing to existing labour practices, he told Frontline that most companies did not enroll their casual workers in these schemes.

Trade unions and industrial safety experts have alleged that economic liberalisation has loosened labour safety standards in industrial workplaces. TEL has not escaped this trend, according to company sources. A company source told Frontline that "production norms are lax compared to best-practice norms." However, he added that the work culture was good at TEL, mainly because "workers have a positive attitude".

Trade unions point to the fact that the company started engaging casual labour only after the mid-1990s. They allege that labour and industrial safety are seen by the management as adjuncts to the production process, implying a bureaucratic implementation of "safety norms".

Until industrial safety is perceived by managements as part of the company's commitment to quality and work standards, workplaces will continue to remain death traps.

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