Prioritise safety in industry during the COVID-19 era

Recent accidents pose serious questions on claims of world-class practices in Indian manufacturing industries

By Shobhit Srivastava
Published: Tuesday 12 May 2020
A boiler at Neyveli Lignite Thermal Power Station in Tamil Nadu exploded, causing burn injuries to eight workers

The Indian manufacturing sector has been one of the greatest contributors to the country’s development and economy. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has derailed its operations, caused huge monetary losses and brought an uncertainty on the livelihood of millions of skilled and unskilled labourers.

A relaxation to resume operations, while the lockdown continues, comes as a hope for the country to trigger its economy. Recent incidents on May 7, 2020, however, gave us a glimpse of what the fate of industries can be, if they do not recognise the critical time that should be spent on resuming operations.

How difficult will it be for industries to restart their operations in this new normal? This question becomes more relevant since we are standing in the midst of the pandemic and complete relaxation from the lockdown is still a far-fetched proposition. 

Three fatal accidents occurred in three different manufacturing sectors — chemicals, pulp and paper and thermal power plants — within a span of a few days after relaxation from the lockdown in a few areas.

How did the accidents happen? Were they avoidable? Should only industry be blamed? Are these accidents related to existing lockdown conditions? These are some questions that need to be answered.

The first accident was of a styrene gas leak at a plant owned by LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam. The accident resulted in nine deaths and affected the plant’s employees and thousands of villagers who lived near the plant.

The incident occurred when a gas-storage tank leaked when it was being checked. The plant was shut for over a month due to the nationwide lockdown.

A preliminary report of the probe by the Andhra Pradesh forensic science laboratory’s team mentioned negligence in maintenance during the lockdown and human error in not adding an auto-polymerisation inhibitor in the styrene storage tank. The report also mentioned a failure in maintaining the temperature of styrene below 20 degrees Celsius.

The owners of the plant were penalised by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for Rs 50 crore that is to be deposited with Visakhapatnam’s district magistrate. The second accident took place in Chhattisgarh at Shakti Paper Mill in Tetla village, where workers were were exposed to a gas leak while cleaning an open recycling chamber.

Seven individuals were hospitalised. The mill remained shut since the lockdown was put in place. The accident was not reported by the plant, but emerged only after hospital authorities informed the police.

In the third accident, a boiler at Neyveli Lignite Thermal Power Station in Tamil Nadu exploded, causing burn injuries to eight workers. The mishap occurred due to increased pressure inside a boiler that led to an explosion and caused a flash fire.

While there is no evidence of the linkage of the power plant accident to COVID-19 (it was a failure of the boiler safety systems), the other two accidents took place when the industries were in the process of starting of operations when they were allowed to open.

Where did things go wrong for these industrial units?

It is to be noted that during the COVID-19 lockdown, most industries shut operations, vacated the premises and left the sites completely unmanned.

Only industries manufacturing essential commodities continued operations with reduced manpower. Shutting and restarting production, therefore, is problematic in a few sectors — the chemical industry, for example — that cannot be opened and closed very frequently.

Chemical and petrochemical industries may not be required to operate essentially, but due to properties of raw materials and the hazardous nature of the chemicals handled, such industries cannot afford to leave their sites unchecked.

This is due to the fact that strict monitoring of temperature and pressure parameters of chemicals stored in vessels is required very frequently, depending upon the characteristics of the material stored (flammability, boiling point and flash point etc) and only skilled labour are required to perform such tasks during the lockdown.

There is, however, a possibility that these parameters could not have been maintained due to the absence of staff (permanent or contractual), as employees residing in areas near the industries would have to seek permission from local authorities to resume work.

On the other hand, there seems to be a lack of anticipation among industries and may have failed to keep a check on the important sections, that need round-the-clock surveillance.

These industries are required to station a minimum workforce at the site to check critical sections. In the case of LG Polymers, either they did not ask for permission from authorities or they did not get permission from the administration (this is not clear yet). Based on feedback from an industry representative from the fertiliser industry (an essential one), it is understood that most industries are now running at half or a third of their manpower.

Industries with townships did not face any issues of their permanent employees commuting to the plant. There were, however, serious issues in the commute for contractual workers who reside in villages and areas near the plant.

The situation was grave for industries where there is no township. Material like chemicals for water treatment, packaging materials etc are not available in stock in industries for more than a month and need to be procured for continuous operations.

Fertiliser industries received permission from the Union government and the Department of Fertilisers to operate, but local administration did not allow movement of material or manpower. 

While industries look to resume operations, they ignore the fact that, under the new normal, it is required to modify safety check procedures and be more cautious with conventional procedures followed earlier. All these factors resulted in fatal accidents that affected thousands of inhabitants and workers.

To avoid such incidents from happening, it is recommended that:

  • Industries should strictly follow preventive maintenance procedures of equipment during the lockdown phase
  • Proper safety protocols at all the vulnerable points be followed, as failure to adhere to safety norms questions claims of world-class practices in Indian manufacturing industry
  • Industries not try to rush to start operations if they do not have skilled manpower to handle specific areas  
  • Proper planning is required to ensure the movement of labour and raw material, even after manufacturing resumes
  • Proper communication with the local administration is a must for industries to ensure skilled manpower is available onsite to perform checks and create maintenance schedules

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