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Industrial safety: No lessons learnt

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Industrial accidents are not rare phenomena; but the frequency with which they are happening in the port city of Visakhapatnam in North Andhra makes...

Industrial accidents are not rare phenomena; but the frequency with which they are happening in the port city of Visakhapatnam in North Andhra makes us wonder whether safety standards are being followed by heavy and medium industries located in and around the city.

The latest to happen was the blast in the cooling tower of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited’s (HPCL) refinery on Friday that claimed at least 10 lives so far and many more were either battling for life with 80 per cent burns or missing. By the time the final figure emerges, the death toll may go up since the survival rate among third-degree-burn victims will not be high and the missing workers are presumed dead under tonnes of collapsed cooling tower debris. As usual, an inquiry has been ordered, ministers and officials, both from the Centre and State, have visited the accident site, compensation has been announced for the kin of the accident victims, and the game of fixing responsibility has begun.

Notwithstanding the protests by HPCL workers against the management’s attitude in conveying the information to the families of those involved in the blast and accusations of lack of timely help, what should concern us is: Why has Vizag become more prone to mishaps than any other major industrial hub in the country? Is it because industrial safety norms are not strictly adhered to or overlooked compromising workers’ safety? A look at the series of industrial accidents in and near Vizag in recent months shows little has been learnt from the earlier ones.

HPCL Visakh Refinery’s safety record comes under a cloud from time to time. On May 16 this year, Crude Distillation Unit 3 suffered damage due to a fire. Luckily, there were no casualties. But an explosion in 1997 killed 60 people, raising many eyebrows about the refinery’s safety procedures. Since that time, apparently, a number of steps have been taken to minimize/avert accidents.

However, the Friday blast has once again raked up the same issues concerning safety as in other plants in Vizag; for instance, the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant where an explosion at a new blast furnace claimed two contract workers on May Day last year while a month later a blast at oxygen reduction unit in the steel melt shop killed 19. Equally bad are safety records at other industrial units: In Pharma City, multiple explosions at a unit gutted it completely; fires at Heritage Foods, Hetero Drugs, and a reactor explosion at Nagarjuna Agrichem near Srikakulam last year were among others.
While it is easy to dismiss these as mere accidents since the industries involved handle dangerous chemicals, that should be the precise reason for taking extra safety measures by incorporating the latest technology and by upgrading the obsolete plant machinery.
There are also accusations that some chemical units are working without adopting basic safety norms. It is high time that the authorities concerned, both at the State and Central level, look into issues such as annual safety audit, disaster management plans, how industrial safety-related laws are implemented and how to enforce them if they are being violated and surprise checks to ensure all safety rules are followed in letter and spirit. Any lapse on the part of the government or the industrial unit will result in ghastly accidents. With more industries being planned in North Andhra, poor safety procedures spell disaster not only for industries but also for workers.
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