In August 2014 a catastrophic explosion occurred in an automotive parts factory in China, killing 146 workers, 75 of them perishing instantly. This tragedy has been under review from various Chinese authorities, and in late December the cause of the explosion was finally revealed.
The culprit was none other than combustible dust, in this case highly explosive aluminum dust. The factory manufactures and finishes rims for GM vehicles, which created huge amounts of airborne aluminum dust. Workers complained of the dust being so thick it would clog their air masks and get into their mouths, often finishing their shifts covered head to toe in black dust.
The Chinese investigation team discovered that the plant management had refused to provide safety training to employees, and ignored safety regulations for spacing, overcrowding on manufacturing lines, proper combustible dust remediation measures, and had not taken any steps to prevent explosions. The investigation also found that the local officials had neglected their duties to enforce the safety regulations and had let these working conditions continue.
After the findings of the investigation team, the Chinese Cabinet fired the two officials in the region and is holding 18 people for judicial review, with the possibility of indicting them for the blast. Recently the Chinese government has been harshly punishing government officials and company managers that are responsible for industrial accidents and fatalities. This blast also led to a huge safety campaign and overhaul of plant safety measures by the Chinese government in an attempt to prevent another disaster and change views about Chinese workplace safety.
As companies turn to China for their manufacturing, the world has also begun to pay attention to China’s workplace safety concerns. When these accidents happen the outside companies pull their manufacturing out of China for fear of international backlash. In 2011, two separate factories creating parts for Apple devices had fatal aluminum dust explosions, causing Apple to implement new requirements for their suppliers and shutting down any that don’t comply.
In the United States organizations such as OSHA and the NFPA create and enforce regulations for managing combustible dust in manufacturing facilities, but these regulations often aren’t the same and sometimes don’t even exist. Often though, they are ignored or not enforced, which can create severe consequences.