The Industrial safety in the era of Covid 19
The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in nationwide lockdown. on 24 March, the Prime Minister ordered a nationwide lockdown for 21 days in 30 states/ union territories covering a total of 548 districts, affecting the entire 1.3 billion population of India. On 14 April, the prime minister extended the ongoing nationwide lockdown till 3 May. Thereafter, with the ease in lockdown norms, industries were allowed to operate for the first time since the implementation of lockdown. A huge number of factories which hastily wrapped up within a short notice of a few hours, began preparing to restart the production. But, around this time only, a series of industrial accidents took place and shook the country.
Sequence of tragic industrial disasters
A major gas leak happened in a plant near Visakhapatnam in LG Polymers chemical plant on 7th May, causing the death of at least 12 people and 1,000's exposed as the gas spread to the nearby 5 villages. This happened when employees were preparing for starting the production after nationwide lockdown due to Covid 19. The accident occurred at around 2.30 am. The gas leaked in this accident is suspected suspect is to be Styrene. This gas is neurotoxin and a possible carcinogen, and is normally in a liquid state which is safe below a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius. Due to the lock down, the plant was shut down with a large bulk of chemical stored in the tanker. This long stagnancy of six weeks led to some chemical changes inside the storage tanks causing autopolymerisation, The mandatory temperature check was absent. This check was required to keep the temperature of the tank below 17 degree to stop the material from vapourising. This accident led to the death of at least 12 people and 1,000's exposed as the gas spread to the nearby 5 villages. Hundreds who had been provided shelter in Visakhapatnam after the leak returned to their village after two days and raised slogans against the factory management and demanding its closure.
On the same day, the incident in Chhattisgarh took place at Shakti Paper Mill in Tetla village, Raigarh, where the victims were cleaning an open tank. The mill was closed during lockdown and was supposed to start operations soon. Poisonous gas accumulated in the recycling chamber of a paper mill during the six weeks of lockdown leading to the accident. Seven workers fell ill after inhaling a poisonous gas.
Also, On 7th May, boiler blast was reported at NLC India Ltd. thermal power plant located at Neyveli in Tamil Nadu. The boiler blast happened due excessive accumulation of ash and improper fuel combustion caused by uneven heat transfer at certain locations, followed by flash fire. As per a former general manager at National Thermal Power Corporation Limited, this blast was clearly a result of a failure of built-in checks and safety systems that are in place in all the power plants. As a result, eight workers sustained burn injuries.
While these events were being investigated, on 22nd May, Pune in Maharashtra saw a major fire break out in a chemical factory. This incident took place at Kusum chemical manufacturing unit located in Kurkumbh MIDC on Pune-Solapur Road near Pune. The drums containing acetone and ethanol were stored at the plant. As the fire spread, the drums caught fire and exploded. No casualty was reported in the incident as the plant was closed.
In Dahej, in Gujarat’s Bharuch district, an explosion, followed by a fire, in the storage tank of an agrochemical factory, killed ten workers and injured at least 50 of them on 3rd of June. The blast – reason for which is not yet known – triggered a fire that soon spread to other sections of the factory. Highly concentrated chemicals fell on the labourers working in nearby chambers, with a few of them died on the spot .Meanwhile, senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat, Ahmed Patel, blamed the recent changes in labour laws, which he said will encourage factories to create "unsafe working conditions".
These series of industrial accidents raised some questions. While industrial activities will restart slowly and gradually, we need to understand why these unfortunate events keep happening? To what extend lockdown can be blamed for these occurrences? And how they can be stopped from recurring in future? Where are the loopholes in safety norms of the country.
In the wake of these incidents the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) came out with precautions to be observed while starting the manufacturing units on 10th May. NDMA said, “When Lockout/Tagout procedures are not in place, many energy sources can prove to be hazardous to operators/supervisors who are servicing or maintaining electrical, mechanical or chemical equipment."
The authority also added, “When heavy machinery and equipment are not maintained periodically, they can become dangerous for the operators/engineers. Combustible liquids, contained gaseous substances, open wires, conveyor belts and automated vehicles make manufacturing facilities a high-risk environment. Improper enforcement of safety codes and improperly labelled chemicals can further pose serious health hazards."
The authority further asserted that “While restarting the unit, consider the first week as the trial or test run period; ensure all safety protocols; and not try to achieve high production targets."
“To minimize the risk it is important that employees who work on specific equipment are sensitized and made aware of the need to identify abnormalities like strange sounds or smell, exposed wires, vibrations, leaks, smoke, abnormal wobbling, irregular grinding or other potentially hazardous signs which indicate the need for an immediate maintenance or if required shutdown," the NDMA added.
While factories have also been instructed by the Union home ministry to exercise due precaution and social distancing measures to combat the spread of covid-19, the NDMA added, “Especially during the Covid-19 times, ensure all lockout and tagout procedures are in place on a daily basis; Inspection of all equipment as per the safety protocols during the restart phase. In case the industry has any difficulty in managing crucial backward linkages that may be critical for their safe functioning, they should approach the local district administration for specific assistance.
What can help
With incursion of pandemic in year 2020, industries across the globe have seen total or partial manufacturing shutdowns leading to newer safety challenges. During this time, it is important to find solutions and mitigate the associated risk collaboratively for the upcoming challenges and ensure continuity of industries. The guidelines issued by NDMA are detailed, a good understanding of these norms can ensure safety to an extend. Off-course, there is a need of strict implementation of laws and protocols of Health Safety Environment and Risk Management.