Blast at NTPC's Rae Bareli plant: After 29 lives lost, workers claim safety norms were routinely compromised

While the Uttar Pradesh government and the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) management are in fire-fighting mode to conduct rescue and relief operations after a deadly explosion at the Unchahar plant claimed 29 lives on Wednesday, those on the ground say that safety lapses on part of the public sector company may have caused the accident.

According to Bal Govind Tripathi, an electrical contractor who provides 70 workers to NTPC, the unit where the blast occurred was not completely ready for operations and did not fully comply with all safety standards.

 Blast at NTPCs Rae Bareli plant: After 29 lives lost, workers claim safety norms were routinely compromised

Smoke billowing out of NTPC's Unchahar Power Plant where a blast took place on Wednesday. PTI

He said that the labourers had complained of operational trouble about three-and-a-half hours before the mishap on Wednesday but their complaint went unheard. "Some of the workers even left the premises when they were asked to pour water to deal with a blockage in the furnace. Some others were still trying to rectify the problem by tapping the furnace with iron rods when ash and hot gasses exploded out of the boiler," Tripathi said.

Among the labourers contracted by Tripathi, one was injured in Wednesday's mishap.

RD Singh, general secretary of Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh (BMS), demanded a high-level probe in the industrial disaster. He alleged that although the unit where the blast occurred had been functional for about six months, considerable work on it was still pending.

"Why was the unit started when work was yet to be completed? Why did the NTPC administration neglect labourers' complaints submitted to the unit operator and the plant engineer hours before the blast? Sirf shoes aur apron dene se saara safety poora nahi ho jaata (Safety norms are not just met by providing safety shoes and aprons alone)," Singh said.

Amrit Lal, 45, an injured worker from Umra village who has been admitted to a hospital, said that there was no stringent implementation of the safety policy at the plant as workers used the full safety gear only when a senior official was visiting.

"Workers are only interested in getting the shoes but not in wearing the helmet and other safety gear," he said, blaming this attitude on lack of proper training. Lal, who suffered severe burns to his face, was working at Unit VI at the time of the accident.

Singh, who worked at the NTPC Unchahar plant till 2015, said the workers were not given fire retardant gloves and jackets, lifeline belts and other accessories, which are a must while working near a furnace or boiler.

NTPC has, however, refuted the allegations, saying that entry inside the plant is restricted without safety gear. An eight-member probe committee will find out if there were any safety lapses, the Maharatna-status awardee PSU told Firstpost.

Ruchi Ratna, additional general manager (AGM) and public relations officer (PRO) of NTPC's north zone, said that the company has an internal safety department to train workers on safe practices before sending them on the floor.  "The corporation has never been soft on the safety policy," she insisted, adding that regular safety audits, both internal and external, are conducted at all the units.

She could now, however, provide details of the last safety audit of unit VI, despite mentioning that it was conducted "recently". The safety audit of thermal power plant units is done at an interval of one year. Since Unit VI has not yet completed an year of operation, there are speculations that a safety audit may not have been conducted yet.

Ratna informed that almost 95 percent of workers in the power plant are contractual labourers and the onus of getting them an insurance cover lies with their contractor.

A junior engineer, requesting anonymity, told Firstpost, "You can say that there were some safety lapses. Not every norm was being followed. Sometimes, the safety measures were being taken for granted."

Another senior boiler expert at the NTPC north zone office, who wished to remain unnamed, said that at first glance, it looked like one of the fans of the boiler would have stopped due to the malfunctioning of the controls, which would have caused other fans to trip, leading to accumulation of steam and causing this accident. He explained that the boiler generates steam, which rotates the blades of turbines and produces electricity with the help of a generator.

The officer said that there were more than 200 workers in the unit at the time of the accident, as opposed to the normal strength of about 80 workers needed in a fully operational plant, implying that they could have been involved in some additional work.

Meanwhile, Shailendra Dubey, chairman of the All India Power Engineers Federation, demanded a safety audit of all the power plants. He said that their demands are concerned with the safety of power engineers and the audits would help ascertain the exact cause of Unchahar mishap.

Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters

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Updated Date: Nov 03, 2017 07:39:44 IST