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Vizag Steel Blaze Failure of Safety

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By Syed Ali Mujtaba

Some 16 people were burnt alive due to a huge explosion at Visakhapatnam Steel Plant’s melting shop, drawing the nation’s attention to abysmal safety standards at all the steel factories in the country. 

Visakhapatnam Steel Plant has been conferred Navratna status on 17 November 2010. The company focuses on producing value-added steel, with 214,000 tonnes produced in August 2010, out of 252,000 tonnes total of salable steel produced.

In its blast furnace-III that was erected as part of a plan to expand the plant capacity to 6.3 million tones where the explosion took place when the officials were conducting a trial run of the recently commissioned oxygen plant. 

This is the second accident at the plant in a span of one month. On May 1, two people had died in a furnace blast. In another fire mishap, on May 22, a conveyor belt carrying raw material to a new blast furnace completely melted, stalling the production and causing property loss of about Rs.1 crore. 

The machinery in the newly-built plant where the latest mishap occurred was erected by a German company, that didn't provide expertise or any proper instructions to the steel plant and is blamed for such industrial mishap.

However, the Employees' Union blamed negligence on the part of the management for frequent accidents in the plant. Trade union leaders allege that maintenance work in the plant had been neglected for more than a year and there was no supervision of safety or quality in the expansion work.

The recent tragedy was the worst ever accident in a steel plant in India. In it’s recently released green rating of the Indian steel sector, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had drawn the attention of Vizag Steel to its poor safety record.

The latest accident at Vizag Steel is symptomatic of the overall safety and health situation in the Indian steel industry, says a CSE official.

In fact, the CSE’s Green Rating Project (GRP) survey has revealed that over 144 people died in the period 2007-2010 in 17 of the 21 steel plants which the survey studied.

Poor occupational safety management system was found as a clear area of concern in all the steel plants of the country.

The CSE-GRP study during the three-year period found that more than 50 people die every year in major steel plants of the country. It also found that the steel industry of India has one of the worst safety performances in the world.

Iron and steel plants involve several complex processes with hazardous working conditions that require skilled understanding of the safety hazards.

The existing safety monitoring and coordinating structures lack expertise or enforcement capacity to regulate safety measures in steel plants.

It was also clearly found that OHSAS 18001 certification does not have any correlation with the safety records of these plants. This is why existing institutional structures have completely failed to reduce accident rates in the sector.

As concluded in the GRP study and given the latest unfortunate incident at Vizag Steel, it is again being recommended that a specialist regulatory body needs to be put in place to supervise, enforce, train, enhance disclosure and improve the overall safety performance of the steel plants in India.

There is also a need for strengthening of the existing laws of the 1948 Factories Act under which steel industry safety is being currently regulated.

The institutional mechanism and laws of the country are severely constrained to manage, supervise safety and health performance of the steel sector.

Before any other inferno grips a steel factory in India, it is high time to have a foolhardy mechanism in place in such factories to avoid such industrial mishaps happening again.

[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a Journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@yahoo.com]
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