Chinese Industrial Safety: The End of the Great Fall?

Further accidents in industrial sectors highlight a need for China to reconsider its safety strategy. A particularly severe incident took place in Jiangsu – during which 78 were killed and a further 640 hospitalized – after a factory blaze.

In March, we reported on the aforementioned explosion at a pesticide plant in the Jiangsu province. Under normal circumstances, we would consider this a ‘freak’ accident. Upon closer inspection, it’s clear that a larger underlying problem is threatening workers’ occupational health – especially those in the process industry. In 2018 alone, 223 people died in 176 accidents.

Turning Point

The recently restructured Ministry of Emergency Management of People’s Republic of China (MEM) is tasked with assessing potential risks at plants and chemical parks – an immense undertaking. After all, there are more than 670 chemical parks in China – that’s 26,000 chemical producers in operation.

In the wake of the Tianjin blasts of 2015, a set of risk assessment guidelines were drafted by the MEM. Initial assessment revealed that only 30% of Chinese chemical parks have safety regulations in place. At the end 2018, officials reported that 337 uncompliant and unsafe chemical companies should be closed permanently. This number is expected to rise in 2019, as the MEM and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) continue investigations.

Chinese companies must adjust to survive increased regulatory control and financial restriction from government. Those that do can expect improved success, as more and more plants are forced to close.

Still Work to Be Done

During one week in July 2019, a further two accidents at gas plants occurred. 17 people were killed in total. One plant, worryingly, had been recognized for its “outstanding contribution to the standardization of safe production of hazardous chemical products.”

There is obvious room for stricter regulations. That is if China is to achieve its goal of becoming an industrial and economic superpower by 2025. Until recently, regulation enforcers didn’t have the expertise or knowledge in chemical engineering to notice discrepancies in safety measures. Experienced engineers have since been brought in to assess plants. That being said, the sheer number of plants makes standardization much more difficult. That’s why many companies are pursuing training and assistance from external sources and international consultants, as well as performing in-house safety checks themselves.

“Many plant operators are pursuing training and assistance from external sources and international consultants.”
Peter Sieber,
Vice President of Norms and Standards & Vice President of Region China, HIMA Paul Hildebrandt GmbH

What Next? Head West?

The process industry in China continues to grow, despite a lack of regulatory structure. But in recent years, demand for smart safety solutions has grown. Events such as the China Industry Fair (which took place between September 17-21) raise awareness of developments in IIoT and technologies that can aid more efficient and, more importantly, safer production. Involvement from the likes of the MEM and MIIT will help China to catch up to world-standard production, one of the key objectives of the China 2025 Initiative.

A migration trend is ongoing, as more and more chemical companies relocate to the western provinces. This is partly due to rising costs to upgrade safety instrumentation. Relocation is a viable option: Costs are controllable, land is cheaper, and the area is less densely-populated. Taifeng Chemical Company, for example, (formerly based in Jiangsu) has moved its production line to the Inner Mongolia region.

There are important changes underway that are slowly ushering in a new era in Chinese industrial safety. But to succeed in delivering a safer future, all stakeholders will need to embrace these new strategies.

“Involvement from the likes of the MEM and MIIT will help China to catch up international counterparts.”
Peter Sieber,
Vice President of Norms and Standards & Vice President of Region China, HIMA Paul Hildebrandt GmbH