Two explosions and six dead in a span of four days this month. Two hundred and forty eight persons were killed in 170 blasts between 2000 and 2012, prior to the Mudalipatti incident in which 41 lives were snuffed out. The figures show the industrial town of Sivakasi, whose products light up the skies on joyous occasions, in poor light. Though efforts have been made to prevent explosions, the successive blasts have raised a question whether they are substantive.
Blasts happen out of human error or negligence; use of sub-standard and substitute chemicals and flouting of rules. The commission of enquiry constituted to probe the Mudalipatti blast, headed by Chaithanya Prasad, Controller General of Patents and Trademarks, has cited human error and negligence on the part of officials as reasons for the major tragedy.
The crucial task of mixing chemicals has to be undertaken by experienced people. But fireworks owners say that they are not able to deploy experienced hands due to shortage of skilled manpower. The water used to mix chemicals is not always tested. Even some of the chemicals used are not ISI-marked. Compromises are made to bring down prices by using cheap chemicals, they admit.
Sunday’s explosion has taken place in a fireworks unit which, like many others, functioned on a holiday to compensate the loss of a week day that would fall on May 1 (May Day).
The industry has to focus on training and mechanisation, says A. P. Selvarajan, former president, Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers’ Association. Absence of trained manpower in fireworks units, where retirement is due only to disease, disability or death and not superannuation, is a serious issue. And training, primarily, is not through education but experience. In many places, one can find people judging the decibel of a cracker using their aural faculty and not a gadget. The available workforce in Virudhunagar district has started to search for less hazardous ways of making a living. Very few units employ qualified people to handle chemicals but the attrition rate is high.
Today, the range of items manufactured, chemicals used, process sequence and methods adopted, and the resultant colors and effect are so high and complex that they require a deeper understanding of pyrotechnic chemistry by manufacturers, workers and inspecting officials, says S. Srinivasan, a manufacturer.
Mechanisation, though prohibitive in cost, provides hope of eliminating human involvement in hazardous process. Leading units have started to take steps to minimise loss of lives.
They have set up research and development laboratories and entered into collaboration with institutions like the Indian Institute of Science. Installation of lightning arresters and erection of huge walls and automation of some of the hazardous processes are the steps taken to smother the impact of blasts. A decision taken last week to contain blasts pertains to use of more drying platforms and isolation of the manufacturing process of products that use gun powder.
Summer vacation for the industry is an idea mooted to prevent blasts. Past records show that a majority of explosions have happened in April-May.
The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation can also think of allowing production between 4 and 8 in the morning and evening during summer months, says Mr. Selvarajan.