The Bhilai steel plant, which is a part of the SAIL behemoth, has a record of accidents, with a majority of them having been brushed under the carpet.
On 9 October, a massive explosion left twelve of the steel plant's most skilled workers dead. Thirteen others sustained 80 percent burn injuries.
The Chhattisgarh government’s industrial health and safety department, following a preliminary inquiry, has declared that proper maintenance procedures had not being carried out at the time of the accident.
But officials working for the plant say that the biggest lapse has been the failure of the senior management to set up a statutory safety committee in the last two years. Such a committee would have been responsible for ensuring the strict implementation of occupational safety norms.
This year, three accidents had earlier taken place at the plant — on 8,9 and 10 May. Emphasising the gravity of the situation, minister of steel Birendra Singh admitted before the Lok Sabha earlier this year that SAIL had suffered 20 fatalities due to accidents in its plants in 2015, while another 11 occurred in 2016 and 16 took place in 2017. Figures for other accidents (of a lesser magnitude) that took place were 53 in 2015, 31 in 2016 and 35 in 2017.
Obviously, no lessons had been learnt from the gas leak that had occurred at the plant on 12 June, 2014, which resulted in the deaths of two deputy general managers BK Singh and NK Katariya, a master technician A Samuel, senior operator Yarad Ram Sahu, assistant fire station officer Ramesh Kumar Sharma and two others, apart from injuring over 50 people.
Following the disaster on 9 October, Rajya Sabha MP and general secretary of CITU Tapan Sen shot off a letter to the SAIL chairman seeking a thorough inquiry into why accidents have been occurring on a "frequent basis in the SAIL steel plants, especially as these had reached an alarming stage with the authorities remaining visibly unmoved to the existing situation."
Sen pointed out, "It was because of the pressure put by CITU that SAIL authorities ordered the suspension of three senior officers at the Bhilai Steel Plant. These included CEO M Ravi, General Manager Safety T Pandyaraja and DGM, Energy Management, Naveen Kumar."
Sen believes that “violation of standard operating practices and negligence of timely repair-maintenance work” were taking place, with “maintaining unhindered pace of operational work” being cited as the reason.
Sen went on to state that the steel industry is one of the most hazardous industries in the world. "I myself started my life as a worker in the steel industry, so I know what the conditions are first-hand," he said.
SAIL officials say that while the public sector is forthcoming about its casualty figures in accidents, no figures are available for the private sector. The Centre for Science and Environment has stated that the annual fatality rate in Indian steel plants is about 50, which is one of the highest in the world.
A SAIL officer, while explaining the technical causes of the accident, said, "Coke manufacturing includes preparing, charging, and heating the coal; removing and cooling the coke product; and then recycling the oven gas. On Tuesday, when the main pipeline was blocked for maintenance work, an explosion occurred. Typically, when the blocking is done, a meter is used to check if all of the gas has been removed and the line is depressurised. Then, through the joints, a sheet is inserted to isolate the pipe for repair… There was probably some gas left in the line,” the official statement said.
Vijay Mairal, spokesperson at Bhilai Steel Plant, declined to give details, and merely said, "A SAIL inquiry has been set up. In such a sensitive matter, it would not be appropriate to comment before these reports are in.”
But SP Dey, president of the Hindustan Steel Employees Union (affiliated to CITU), who was present inside the factory premises when the accident occurred on Tuesday, said the maintenance work was being executed by members of the energy management department.
Dey said, "All the 23 workers who were present at the time of the accident were permanent employees and were highly skilled. So far, 12 workers have lost their lives. The job which they had been doing requires high discipline and technological precision. The blast was so intense that even the members of the fire brigade unit could not do anything, and they too, died on the spot."
Going into the details of what happened, Dey said, "A portion of the gas line was exerting uneven pressure. The gas line has to be shut down and cleaned, but before cleaning, the gas line has to be blanked. All of this is the work of experts... This process requires a proper protocol, with all the agencies being informed. Blanking means stopping the gas by inserting a dummy plate. Then, the dummy plate is removed. This is what was happening when all of a sudden, the gas caught fire."
“It is possible that some spark might have been generated. Of course, measures had been taken to ensure there were no sparks nearby. One possibility is that some static current might have been produced inside that gas line. This whole issue has to be looked into by experts," he added.
Dey explained that there were other shortcomings in the present safety management system. “In all the units of SAIL, the entire workplace is registered as a single factory. However, in the Bhilai Steel Plant, there are 43 factories. If any incident occurs inside the plant, it will not be considered as an accident inside the factory unless it occurred in the premises of a department which is registered as a factory. As per the definitions in the Factories Act, all the departments cannot be registered as a factory. So we have sixteen departments. including EMD. which are not registered as factories in the plant.”
Gopal Krishna of the ToxicsWatch Alliance said, "The SAIL management has remained tight-lipped despite the deaths of 13 employees in 2015 and another 26 sustaining minor injuries. Two SAIL employees have also been sentenced to a year's imprisonment."
He says that there is an urgent need to upgrade this 68-year-old plant before further accidents take place. Several of the disasters which have taken place in the past appear to have taken place due to a negligent attitude towards maintenance.
The Bhilai steel plant, located 40 kilometres west of Raipur, is part of the SAIL family and is expected to produce 14.1 million tonnes of saleable steel in the financial year 2018-19. It had a net worth of Rs 35,714 crore in the current year, with net sales of Rs 15,743 crore.
Chhattisgarh has one of the poorest safety records amongst states in India. In 2009, 45 workers were killed due to a chimney collapse at the BALCO construction site in Korbe, also located in this state, because of the failure to adhere to minimum safety norms.
Updated Date: Oct 13, 2018 00:00 AM