Two deadly industrial disasters, in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, leading to the loss of at least eight lives and causing serious injuries to many, once again underscore the value of safety protocols. In a boiler blast at the Neyveli thermal power station, six people were killed and a dozen workers suffered severe burns, while a toxic chemical leak at a pharmaceutical plant in Visakhapatnam led to two deaths immediately. These and two other recent disasters, also at a Neyveli power plant and the LG Polymers factory in the Visakhapatnam area, have come at a stressful time when India is trying to find its feet in the midst of the pandemic. What happened in Neyveli on Wednesday is inexplicable, since the power producer had encountered a boiler furnace blowout only on May 7, and had ordered a review of its infrastructure and processes. Without meticulous care, boilers are dangerous pieces of equipment. High-pressure and superheated steam make for a lethal combination, if their release mechanism is not kept in good order, and there is an explosion. For this very reason, they are regulated strictly under the Indian Boilers Act, at least on paper. The terrible consequences of lax boiler safety were evident three years ago in Rae Bareli, when a blast at an NTPC power plant killed a few dozen people. But States have clearly not internalised a culture of zero tolerance to boiler accidents.
The gas leak in Visakhapatnam apparently involving benzimidazole, a chemical used in pharmaceuticals, raises questions on maintenance and operational procedures. The probe into how vapours of a stable but acutely toxic chemical escaped should lead to an upgrade to safety protocols. In the Neyveli incident, there is a suggestion that the boiler was not in operation as it had tripped and was in the process of being revived. Since the major operations of this equipment involve a furnace and production of steam, what led to an unexpected blowout? NLC India, a key power producer, has an obligation to present a transparent report on why its facilities are beset by mishaps. Occupational safety demands that boilers are operated by trained personnel, but some of those on the ground have been described as contract employees. It will take an independent probe to determine whether cost calculations guided staffing decisions in such a hazardous sector. The response of the Centre and States to industrial accidents is usually to stem public outrage by announcing compensation for victims. A transparent inquiry that leads to a fixing of responsibility and reform is a low priority. This culture must change. Such accidents are mostly preventable, and occur rarely in the industrialised world, because of impeccable attention to safety. India’s aspirations to industrialise should be founded on safety.