Written by Bin Wu.

On the morning of the 2nd August 2014, a huge explosion in a factory broke the peaceful environment in Kunshan, one of most economically successful cities in China and the winner of the UN-HABITAT Scroll of Honour Award in 2010. Equally important, it has also drawn the public and media’s attention to global supply chains: factories in China are often viewed as having poor working conditions, but are relatively safe in terms of mortality rates. What are causes for the tragedy costing 75 lives and 185 injuries? And what lessons should be learnt from the work safety management (WSM) system in “low risk” industries?

The preliminary investigation indicates that this tragedy was caused by metal dust blast in Zhongrong Metal Production Company, a Taiwanese owned firm which specialises in electronic aluminium alloy wheel hubs and produces auto parts for General Motors (GM) and other transnational companies. Many factors include inappropriate design of the workshop building, overcrowded production lines, poor ventilation, no strict adherence to regulations on cleaning dust regularly, no appropriate safety training and implementation of safety regulation, as well as a heavy workload for front-line workers trying to meet the deadlines. It is unsurprising that the Taiwanese owner and relevant senior managers will face legal charges and heavy punishment for their ignorance of the safety regulations.

Beyond the direct responsibility of the company owner and managers in the safety production, the release of media reports online bring our attention to some important but incomplete facts/clues for further investigation. Firstly, before the blast, a fire happened in this factory two months ago caused by the same factors; heavy metal plastics floating and accumulating within the workshop. This incident, which was successfully controlled before fire-fighters arrived on scene, seems to have had little impact on the continuity of unsafe production, a lost opportunity to avoid the catastrophe later on. Secondly, before the tragedy, many workers in this company have expressed their concerns about air pollution and unsafe production issues via various channels including the internet, official complaint channels as well as demonstrations outside of the gate of the factory. Whilst more details remain to be seen from the final report of the on-going official investigation, the information above raises serious questions about the responsibility of local governments in general and work safety management authorities in implementing safety regulations and also communications with front-line workers who care about their own health and safety more than any other groups.

It seems clear that the ignorance of voices and participation of workers should be listed as an important lesson to be learnt from the tragedy of Kunshan. This calls for a rethink about the principles and effectiveness of current work safety management system in China. With an emphasis on a top-down approach and heavy punishment of company leaders and local government officers, there is almost no space for front-line workers and their representatives at grassroots level (either formally or informally organisations) to play a role in the current WSM system. Whilst the top-down approach may be effective for controlling and reducing tragedies in some high risk industries with clear geographical and administrative boundaries, it could become less effective in low-risk manufacturing industry which are dominated by foreign direct investment (FDI) and migrant workers for global supply chains production. Compared with their counterparts in dangerous or high risk industries such as coal mining, transport and construction, safety issues in those low risk companies are easily ignored by the safety authorities, leading to an accumulation and multiplication of the “error chains” until a catastrophic disaster occurs. In this sense, the Kunshan explosion may offer an opportunity for regulators, safety professionals and researchers, industrial leaders as well as workers’ representatives to think about the broadening or reforming China’s WSM system to give more space for the front-line workers and grassroots organisation to express their opinions, comments and suggestions for improving their health and safety environments.

Not limited to the participation of front-line workers, the Kunshan explosion has also indicated the necessity of broadening the WSM system to include both health and safety of the workshop. The interconnection between health and safety, according to media reports, can be seen from a phrase of “living terra cottas” used by front-line workers in this factory. It describes a situation where after a few hours working in the production lines all of workers look like “terra cotta” with blue colour due to thick metal dust covering their faces and coats. As a result, many people suffer from lung disease, and other occupational diseases. This is one reason why many workers have bravely taken various actions to express their consideration about the long term impact on their health. For some reason, unfortunately, the initiatives of front-line workers have not yet received a positive response. This case seems to suggest that the improvement of safety standards in the manufacturing industry in China may not be easily achieved without upgrading labour standards and working conditions in those FDI companies and global supply chain factories.

Finally, the Kunshan explosion raises a question about the extent the Chinese government in general and WSM authorities in particular care about the voices and interests of front-line workers. It may not be a coincidence that the Kunshan explosion happened just before a self-celebration of the WSN authority from central to local governments including its branch within Kunshan City Government about the progresses and achievements in the decline  of severe industrial incidents and mortality rates in the first half year of 2014. On the 1st of August 2014, a day before the explosion, Work Safety Supervision Office, part of Kunshan City government, released an official briefing about the achievements of safety production across Kunshan’s enterprises in which the Zhongrong Company was listed for appreciation about some progresses in safety and pollution control.

When opening official website, for instance, it seems there is no clear indication about the access, policy and method for people to submit their complaints or considerations related to safety production. What we can see are figures relating to unsafe production made by workers. According to official reports 17,363 pieces of information were received by the authority in the first six months of 2014 nationwide, of which 9,177 pieces are related to unsafe production. Among these data, 96.7% are verified by the authority, and two thirds are confirmed as true. Informants are paid about 100 yuan (£10) for each piece of confirmed information. Taking into account the potential risk for informants from their employers and great benefits for health and safety outcomes, such policy design and practice seem insufficient to gain the sustained participation of front-line workers.

To conclude, it is still too early to draw a comprehensive picture about the causes of Kunshan explosion and lessons from the perspective of work safety management (WSM) in China. The available information encourages us to think about some fundamental issues related to the principles and effectiveness of the current WSM system in low-risk manufacturing industries. As a result, we call for more space for voices and participations from front-line workers and their representatives in order to avoid similar tragedies in the future.

Bin Wu is a Senior Research Fellow at the CPI.