Unsafe, unsound

What is China’s deadliest industry?


The scene of the accident

Is 2016 going to be the year China’s construction sites prove more deadly than the country’s notoriously lethal coal mines?

In the wake of a massive scaffolding collapse at a power station in Jiangxi province last week that certainly seems possible.

Seventy-four workers were killed in the November 24th incident – pushing the number of deaths to 644 at construction sites this year. Meanwhile the number of fatalities in the country’s mines is dropping – 1,049 in 2013, 931 in 2014 and 768 last year.

The convergence is an illustration of how complacent about safety the construction industry has become, say many in the Chinese media.

“If we don’t value human life, we don’t value anything,” warned the People’s Daily on the morning after the Jiangxi disaster.

It went on to say that November and December are often the worst time for accidents as construction firms rush to get projects finished before the year ends. “Risks multiply and gather… but development should never come at the cost of human life,” the state mouthpiece proclaimed.

The exact cause of the accident in Jiangxi is as yet unknown. The workers clocked on as normal that morning and were in the process of putting up the 70-metre high scaffolding when it collapsed.

Some reports say a crane toppled over, others suggest the floor gave way – a result of the edifice being built on concrete which had not hardened sufficiently. Images of the aftermath show the tower floor covered in twisted girders.

The youngest victim was 23 and the oldest 53. All the victims were working for Hebei Yineng, the construction company hired to build the cooling tower at the power plant.

The chairman of Yineng has now been arrested, Xinhua said, along with eight others.

The company has promised to pay each of the victims’ families Rmb1.2 million ($173,910) in compensation – money it has apparently already started releasing.

However, the bigger issue of why these accidents happen still looms large.

On paper, at least, China has reasonably good safety laws. The problem is enforcement. In fact, two weeks before the collapse a safety inspector had visited the Fengcheng cooling tower project and found it wanting. According to a photo of the report posted to the People’s Daily weibo account, the scaffolding was found to be substandard and workers were not wearing safety harnesses.

After the accident a spokesperson for the company told Shanghai-based that: “When a projects needs to be completed quickly, you also need to rush.”

The Fengcheng tower was approved last year and work began this July. It was due to be completed by the end of this month.

Several newspapers pointed out this was not the first-time Yineng had been involved in a tragedy of this kind. In 2012 seven people died when scaffolding inside another cooling tower in Yunnan collapsed. “How come such companies still get contracts?” asked one netizen.

“Explosions, landslides, now this,” wrote another blogger, referencing the massive explosion that killed over 170 at a chemical warehouse in Tianjin last summer and the December landslide in Shenzhen that killed 73. The landslide was caused by construction waste dumped on a hill over an industrial park. The debris became waterlogged and rolled down the slope, flattening all in its wake.

Such tragedies are obviously avoidable but it is worth pointing out that official figures for construction-related deaths in China aren’t that different from those in the US – a country whose population is four times smaller.

It is also worth highlighting that China’s construction industry employs some 50 million people, compared to six million in mining.

It is possible that this year construction deaths will exceed mine fatalities and hopefully that will be a wake up call to the building sector.

But as WiC went to press the fate of 22 miners trapped underground since Tuesday in Heilongjiang was still unknown. That incident follows dozens of other deaths in recent weeks as mines step up production following a surge in the price of coal…

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.