Shandong to Dead Workers: Blame Yourselves.

It seems like we’re going through another round of Chinese industrial accidents, each worse than the last. In fact, they are becoming so common that an accident which might be judged major under normal circumstances, now receives almost no coverage due to the much larger accidents. Case in point: on Sunday, an aluminum plant exploded in Shandong, yet most of the day’s disaster coverage was focused on the Xintai mine tragedy.

The essence of the aluminum disaster, according to Shanghai Daily, is this: 9 workers were killed, and 64 injured [the numbers have since risen], when (what sounds like) a cauldron of molten aluminum encountered a cooling pond at a factory owned by the Shandong Weiqiao Group in Zouping County. An additional Shanghai Daily story, filed on the same day, reported:

“The flow shattered windows of the 45-meter-long, 27-meter-wide and eight-meter-tall workshop, lifted the building’s roof and left cracks on the walls …”

20070820_327958_02.jpg

The photo and the dimensions quoted in the second Daily story do not suggest the small, wildcat operations typically involved in Chinese industrial accidents (and subtly hinted at in the Daily story). As it happens, I have been covering extractive and secondary metal industries in China for several years now, and the Shandong plant – as described and photographed – immediately struck me as being a large, modern facility.

This wasn’t hard to confirm.

According to the company website, the Binzhou Weiqiao Aluminum Company began producing electrolytic aluminum in July 2003, and it currently has production capacity for 250,000 metric tons of aluminum products per year. That makes the Binzhou facility one of the largest aluminum manufacturers in China [in 2006, China produced a total of 815. million metric tons of aluminum products] and – it so happens – the world. The equipment described on the company’s website, as well as the staff (567 employees, including “30 various technicians”) also suggests a technologically modern facility, and one that should have a significant degree of automation and safety redundancy [I’ve seen such plants in the developed world AND in China]. At the very least, as described, it is not the kind of plant where worker error leads to an explosion that literally lifts the roof off the building.

And yet, in the aftermath of the explosion, that is precisely how Shandong’s safety “watchdog” is characterizing the accident:

JINAN – Workers’ negligence has been blamed for the molten aluminium spill that killed 14 and injured 59 at a factory in East China’s Shandong Province on Sunday, the provincial work safety watchdog said on Tuesday.

The inner lining of an aluminium container at the factory in Zouping County fell off because it was mishandled by workers, which led to the spillage of aluminium at a temperature of 900 degrees Celsius, the Shandong Provincial Work Safety Bureau said.

Now, admittedly, the story is so vague (lining? container? huh?) as to defy a simple repudiation (and, considering the state of the factory as depicted in the post-explosion photo, it seems unlikely that safety inspectors could determine the cause so quickly, if at all). But suffice it to say that cauldrons capable of being mis-handled haven’t been features of technologically sophisticated aluminum plants in many years. That is to say, the local government’s explanation is absurd. Large, modern aluminum plants don’t explode because someone failed to replace a liner. If worker error was responsible for the accident, that error could only have occurred if there was a fatal design or safety flaw in the plant itself.

It’s no surprise that the Shandong safety authorities would quickly act to protect a large (partly state-owned) employer from having to take responsibility for a large industrial accident (see: Xintai mining disaster). What is surprising – or at least, novel – is the approach that they take in this case, tacitly suggesting that one of the China’s largest aluminum producers was actually operating like a wildcatter.

Below, a photo of the plant before it exploded on Sunday.

binzhou.jpg

[Update 8/27: A reader emailed to note that the Binzhou facility is one of many factories owned by the Shandong Weiqiao Aluminum and Power Company. This is quite right, and according to the company website, the company is a “super grand multiple-producing factory combining thermoelectricity, alumina, electrolytic aluminum, and aluminum deep progressing.” In other words, it is big. I’ve just emailed a source in Beijing who might be able to provide some insight into the overall scale of the company; if I get a helpful reply, I’ll post the information here.]

[UPDATE: 8/29: China’s State Administration of Work Safety has announced that the plant explosion was a result of design flaws, thus repudiating the claims of “human error” made by the Shandong authorities. Additional information can be found in a new post to Shanghai Scrap.]

13 thoughts on “Shandong to Dead Workers: Blame Yourselves.

  1. Hello, My name is Bryan Branom……I work for an aluminum remelt plant owned by Hydro Aluminum in Commerce, Texas. We recieved word of the explosion at this aluminum plant in Shandong Province. We like to learn from incidents and explosions at other plants. If you recieve anymore information as to how this explosion occurred we would certainly like to get the details. You can email me if you like. Always Learning.

    Regards,
    Bryan

  2. Bryan – I’m not sure how much more information will leak about this incident. The plant’s parent is a large state-owned company, and I can’t imagine that they’ll be more forthcoming about what actually happened. But if I hear anything – and I might – I’ll certainly post it.

  3. “If worker error was responsible for the accident, that error could only have occurred if there was a fatal design or safety flaw in the plant itself.”

    Exactly.

  4. Pingback: China Law Blog

  5. “If worker error was responsible for the accident, that error could only have occurred if there was a fatal design or safety flaw in the plant itself.”

    Adam, recalling aluminum plant explosions also happens in US, I did a quick search – two recent (2006 Hot Springs Arkansas, 2005 Comfort Point Texas) aluminum explosions were blamed on “human error”.

    This seems to suggest design and safty is more nuianced than you claim. It can only minimized industrial accidents.

  6. Charles –

    Thanks much for your comment.

    A few points in response.

    1. There was no aluminum plant explosion in Point Comfort, Texas in 2005. I think that you are referring to the October 6, 2005 explosion of the Formosa Plastics facility in Point Comfort. Alcoa operated (operates?) an aluminum plant nearby the facitlity. But the explosion was not at Alcoa – the explosion was at a plastics plant.

    2. You refer to the October 31, 2006 explosion at Arkansas Aluminum Alloys explosion in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in which two workers were killed and one was injured. First, it is worth noting that the Arkansas plant is a secondary facility; that is, it melts scrap metal into new aluminum. The Shandong facility is a primary facility; that is, it manufactures new aluminum from ores and other raw materials. The processes and technologies utilized in the two plants are significantly different, so it’s difficult to draw comparisons. Nonetheless, early news reports on the Hot Springs accident indicate that the accidents took place in an area where ingots are poured; obviously, the Shandong plant has one of those, too. So, a comparison might be possible.

    However, what I find most troubling about your comment is that you state – categorically – that the Arkansas accident was caused by “human error.” Could you please refer me to the document which claims this? No official government OSHA report has been issued on this accident, so I am quite curious to know how or where you procured this information. I find it hard to take this statement seriously without a reference, especially considering your error in regard to the Point Comfort explosion.

    In either case, I agree that design and safety issues are matters of nuance. No question about that. But I stand by my original post, and the overall point: it is utterly shocking that one of the world’s largest and newest (major) aluminum plants would explode on the basis of a worker mistake. Furthermore, I am troubled by the description of the accident as provided to the Chinese press; quite simply, the equipment as described in the plant would not exist there.

    Finally, I frankly find it distasteful that your answer is predicated on pointing out that aluminum explosions also happen in the United States. Does the fact that the US has industrial accidents make then any less serious or relevant in China? Why draw this sort of tit-for-tat nationalism into the discussion at all? Whatever the case, I really don’t think you want to get into a discussion as to which country has a better safety record in its industrial facilities.

  7. Adam, I am an American. If you are making your “nationalism” bit solely based on my last name, it is rather racist. I was not born in mainland China, ain’t never been a citizen of the PRC a day in my life.

    What I am pointing out is your statement regarding design and safty is a little simplistic and self-righteous:

    “If worker error was responsible for the accident, that error could only have occurred if there was a fatal design or safety flaw in the plant itself.”

    Does this apply to ourselves? If so how can we ever declar “human error” in industrial accidents? And since we do, aren’t we too telling the workers to blame themselves?

    It’s a lot more nuianced than what you make it out to be.

  8. A former manager, at an aluminium plant that I worked at; told me about an accident that he had witnessed (in a primary ali plant in Australia about 30 years ago I believe). A conscientious worker recycled an empty can of soda by throwing into a re melt / secondary / standby furnace (i.e. not the pot lines). The remaining liquid in the can, when split into hydrogen and oxygen, was enough to cause an explosion killing Mr. Green and two colleagues – clearly human error. Given the volume of liquid metal mentioned in the article, and if it had free access to liquid, I am only surprised that the damage was as slight as it was. In Shandong it is perfectly possible that the liner was not properly maintained through poor processes. This could be ascribed to a management failings (if the process was incorrect or that the work was not thoroughly checked) or human error (if the process was done incorrectly – inadvertently or deliberately but that management check could not have foreseen this).

  9. JH –

    Thank you for your excellent comment. You obviously know much more about aluminum plant safety than me! In response, I’ll merely point out that the Shandong plant is new – unlike the 30+ year-old plant mentioned in your comment. Thus, I’m still surprised that an accident like this could have happened there (are the Chinese using modern safety equipement?), and I’m still doubtful about the information that has been provided via Chinese media. JH – has this sort of accident happened in a US or European plant built in the last decade or so? I’d be very grateful if you or anyone else could post that information to this comment thread.

    As for you, Charles, I hope that – if you comment further on this post – you’ll include a reference showing where you found the “human error” finding on the Hot Springs explosion.

    In response to both – safety can be a subtle, nuanced subject … which is precisely why I wish that we had more, better, and credible information about it. Unfortunately, the only information out there is a dribble released via Xinhua. And that dribble has been misleading. For example, it claims:

    “A similar incident happened in April at a steel plant in Northeast China’s Liaoning Province. White-hot molten metal at 1,500 C was thrown into a room where workers had gathered as they changed shifts in Qinghe Special Steel Corporation, in the city of Tieling. Thirty-two workers were killed and six injured.”

    This is false, insofar as the accidents are comparable. The Liaoning incident, at least as documented in the Chinese press, was the result of a cauldron breaking loose and spilling molten steel across the shop floor. This is not what happened in Shandong; we don’t know what happened in Shandong, despite the willingness of the authorities to declare causes within hours [hours!] of the accident. Good safety investigations require days, weeks, months, years. The mere willingness of the local government to claim “human error” – especially in light of the plant’s ownership – should raise red flags.

    Anyway, I readily concede that such accidents can be a combination of flawed plant design and human error. But good modern plant design has rendered that deadly combination much, much less common. Which is why the incident in Shandong – in one of the world’s largest and most modern plants – is so interesting/troubling.

    I hope that other people more knowledgeable than me will continue posting on this thread. I think the discussion is important, particularly in light of the fact that no additional information as been released on the plant since the first 48 hours after the explosion.

  10. Pingback: Shanghai Scrap » Xinhua: “Design flaws” Responsible for Shandong Aluminum Explosion

  11. Pingback: Shanghai Scrap » Why is Binzhou Weiqiao Suddenly So Interesting?

  12. i work in an aluminum remelt plant and have seen safety videos of what happens when you introduce moister to molten aluminum… doesn’t take much and the results is tremendous… there is nothing physically stopping a person(s) from throwing an aluminum can or something equivalent into the molten aluminum… training is key and safety should be at the top of the employer’s list of must haves…

Comments are closed.