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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

Ordnance factory explosion exposes untrained casual workers, use of ancient equipment

The Pulgaon explosion incident exposes alleged lack of precautions, official-contractor nexus in city’s defence establishment

pune Updated: Nov 23, 2018 17:04 IST
S Singh
S Singh
Hindustan Times, Pune
City has an ammunation factory (as seen in picture), a high explosive factory in Khadki and an ordnance factory on Dehu road.
City has an ammunation factory (as seen in picture), a high explosive factory in Khadki and an ordnance factory on Dehu road.(HT/PHOTO)

Five casual labourers were killed and many others were injured in a massive explosion at Pulgaon-based Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) in Wardha district, around 110 km from Nagpur on Tuesday morning.

The incident has brought into focus the role casual labourers play in such sensitive defence establishments, the use of ancient equipment, probable lack of precautions being taken and the possible nexus between officials and contractors working in such factories. Even though the ministry of defence (MoD) maintains that contractors’ services are used for digging and manual labour (digging pits and placing a sand bag, loading and unloading explosives), contractors and retired army officers beg to differ.

Local connect

Pune has an ammunition factory, a high explosive factory in Khadki and an ordnance factory on Dehu road. An authorised contractor, who provides 250-300 casual labourers annually to two such factories, spoke to HT on condition of anonymity and admitted that the scope of work mentioned in their tenders requires highly skilled, trained and professional manpower and not casual unskilled labourers.

“Hired contractors are explained the standard operating procedures (SOPs) and it is their responsibility to follow the safety norms. Accordingly, they are supposed to brief manpower before employing them. Failure or lapses in following safety norms in the Tuesday incident would be established only after completion of inquiry,” said Group captain BB Pande, regional PRO, ministry of defence, Nagpur region.

“Despite following the SOPs, it is a risky and dangerous job for untrained labourers. Loading and unloading should be mechanised. If a worker accidentally drops a box or he trips, it can spell a disaster. There should also be a briefing by the factory officials if unstable explosives are being handled by labourers. The factory officials know what kind of material is arriving and their personnel should warn us,” said a contractor who has been providing casual labourers to factories for over 15 years.

Lt Gen Ashok Joshi (retd), who was posted with the corps of engineers and has handled explosives, said training is must before people can go anywhere near explosives.

Cheap Labour

According to a contractor, who did not wish to be named, a nexus is at play when work orders/tenders are given out by the government. “As a contractor I cannot provide skilled workers for the scope of work allotted to us because the revenue is very less. Once the government opens a contract, there is stiff competition and people provide services at very low rates through unskilled labour and hence, this problem arises. These labourers treat work given to them unprofessionally and accidents could happen,” he said.

“We have at least 10 trained people who guide unskilled labourers when we are given a work order. The supervisor explains to them the precautions needed on job, but in the end the labourers have to carry out the dangerous job,” an authorised contractor said.

“Contractors can be hired with precondition that vendor shall undertake to employ trained and certified explosive handlers and violation will attract police action and blacklisting,” said Lall.

Vintage armour

A highly placed defence source who is qualified to speak on the matter said that equipment used for handling explosives at such factories also needs an overhaul as they are vintage, World War II machinery. “Accidents can be minimised to a great level if skilled manpower is used. Packaging and transportation also forms a major role while handling explosives which presently is of substandard quality,” the source said.

(With inputs from Gokul Nair)

Make defence officers accountable for lapses: Lall

Col AK Lall (retired), who served in Khadki ammunition factory from 2009-10, said, “The attitude of workers at the factories is lackadaisical. There are several skilled civil defence employees, but they tend to give their work to casual labourers. SOPs are not followed and these casual labourers are trained on the job. Accidents tend to happen when SOPs are not followed while handling explosives. By going for cheap labour, factories themselves invite danger.”

When pointed out that SOPs are given to contractors, Lall said, “Though the contractors are given instructions, officers, supervisors and additional general managers (AGMs) and joint general managers (JGMs) of such factories should also be made accountable for lapses.”

Lall has served in the Heavy Vehicle Factory (HVF) Avadi, Chennai from 2006 – 09 and authored 15 industrial safety manuals in aide memoire form, which helped witness a steep drop in industrial accidents at HVF, claims Lall. “Trained manpower should should undergo rehearsal of laid down SOPs which in most cases is done in a lackadaisical manner,” he said.

Occupational hazard

In June 2017, two persons died and several others were injured in an explosion at ammunition factory, Khadki. Tuesday’s incident is the second major blast at the Pulgaon depot in the last two years. In May 2016, 18 people were killed in a major fire in the depot while disposing of the explosives.

Defence establishments

Ordnance Factories Board (OFB) consisting of the Indian ordnance factories is an industrial organisation, functioning under the department of defence production of ministry of defence, government of India. It is engaged in research, development, production, testing, marketing and logistics of a comprehensive product range in the areas of air, land and sea systems. Ammunition factory Khadki (AFK), High explosives factory (HEF) Khadki, Ordnance factory Dehu road, all come under it.