Vizag is a wake-up call to ensure industrial safety | HT Editorial
The gas leak from a chemical factory in Vizag, which killed 12 people, is the most serious of three industrial accidents that have taken place since the national lockdown was eased on May 3. The other two were in Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh. That the Vizag leak happened within a kilometre from a coronavirus disease (Covid-19) red zone means that people have breached restrictions to escape the effects of the gas that has spread over a five km area. Though the numbers are far smaller, the tragedy brings back memories of the Bhopal gas leak, the worst industrial disaster in the world, which killed at least 3,800 people. The Vizag plant leak was styrene, a benzene derivative used to manufacture plastics and resin. Exposure to it causes headache, loss of hearing and irritation to the mucous membrane, among other things. It can stay in the air for weeks and combine with oxygen to form the lethal styrene dioxide.
The Centre for Science and Environment said that the leak seems to have happened because of the haste to restart the plant without carrying out proper maintenance work. While the government must focus on rescue and relief for now, what is also required is a time-bound investigation to ascertain how safety was compromised and fix accountability. Reports suggest the plant has functioned without proper environmental clearances for a substantial period since it was set up. It must also be asked how the South Korean petrochemical giant, which owns LG polymers, the site of the accident, did not ensure that qualified people were in place to check systems and open the plant.
What happened in Vizag should be considered a warning for other industries which are resuming operations after a lengthy lockdown. India’s industrial safety record has been patchy at the best of times. Now in the aftermath of the lockdown, it is likely to get further eroded. While it is necessary to kick-start the economic engine, it cannot be at the risk of compromising the safety of workers and those who live in the vicinity of industrial plants. If anything, with serious labour shortages and monetary challenges brought on by Covid-19, it becomes even more necessary to strengthen both public and occupational safety systems. Industries must comply with regulations, and the government must ensure that they are strictly enforced. Lives are at stake.