Saturday, January 03, 2004

Blame the Worker: Chinese Style

There's something universal about the need for governments and employers to blame workers for accidents that clearly have deeper systemic roots. This article about the recent gas well explosion in China that killed over 200 people, is so ridiculous it would almost be funny, if the poor workers weren't likely to face long jail time or worse.
Gas Workers Blamed For Chinese Accident

BEIJING -- China blamed negligent gas-well workers Friday for an accident that spewed toxic fumes over mountain villages and killed 233 people -- an unusually swift finding that highlights the government's increasing insistence on accountability.

State television said that investigators had concluded their probe into the Dec. 23 natural-gas disaster in southwestern China and that those at fault would be punished.

"This was an accident due to negligence," said Sun Huashan, deputy director of the State Administration for Work Safety. "Those people who were responsible will be dealt with."

Sun didn't say what the penalties might be, but he listed a series of errors that allegedly allowed a poisonous mix of natural gas and hydrogen sulfide to gush from the state-owned well northeast of the city of Chongqing, killing villagers in a 10-square-mile "death zone" as they slept or tried to flee.

Investigators concluded that the drilling crew improperly dismantled equipment meant to prevent such blowouts, misjudged the amount of gas in the well and failed to recognize the blowout once it began, Sun told state television Friday.
I don't know any of the details of this disaster, but I'd bet all the proverbial tea in China that if a thorough systemic analysis of the causes was conducted -- similar to that done for the space shuttle Columbia -- worker error wouldn't even appear on the list of root or contributing causes.

Anyone looked at the management systems, standard operating procedures, emergency procedures, worker training, any hazard analyses or evaluations of near misses or past incidents, communication of those hazards to relevant personnel? If any of these analyses or evaluations was done, were the recommendations implemented?

These are just a few of the questions that need to be researched and answered, a process that will take considerably longer than the few weeks that have passed since the disaster occurred.

The author of this article writes that this conclusion was "an unusually swift finding that highlights the government's increasing insistence on accountability." It sounds to me like just the opposite -- it highlights the government's desire to shift the blame and pass the buck to the lowest possible level.

Update: The New York Times has a slightly different take on the situation, reporting that series of safety violations by the China National Petroleum Corporation, the country's main domestic oil and gas producer, was to blame:
China National Petroleum cut corners as its workers sought to tap a deep vein of gas in the area.

Safety equipment was not readily available at the site, investigators said. The drilling crew improperly dismantled equipment designed to prevent blowouts. Workers also misjudged the amount of gas in the well, and failed to recognize the extent of the accident when it occurred.

Officials said that if the crew had followed safety instructions they would have immediately set fire to the gas to prevent it from spreading. In fact, it took hours for them to ignite the gas, allowing the highly toxic mixture of natural gas and hydrogen sulfide to escape.

Chinese officials often seek to hold local officials or company executives responsible for safety problems, but usually only after an accident occurs. The government has had trouble reducing workplace deaths because it puts far less emphasis on safe production before accidents happen, Chinese safety experts say. China also forbids workers to organize independent unions that might make safety a higher priority.

Some local news reports made it clear that not just the company, but also local and national officials, had done little or nothing to prepare for an accident of this kind, though such well bursts are not uncommon.
It's interesting that in China, at least, the lack of independent unions is blamed for unsafe working conditions. You never see the American press blaming health and safety hazards in this country on the weakness of the labor movement.