Stored chemicals accelerated a fire that killed at least 24 workers and injured dozens more after a boiler exploded at a packaging factory near Dhaka on Saturday, Bangladesh’s top building safety official told BenarNews.
“There could have been a huge stockpile of chemical substances used in foil packaging, so the fire turned devastating very quickly. The building collapsed and the adjoining building broke down, too,” Syed Ahmed, the inspector general of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, said in confirming that an explosion in the boiler room started the fire.
The blaze at the five-story Tampaco Foils Ltd. Factory in Tongi, which packaged food and tobacco products, was the deadliest industrial accident in Bangladesh since more than 1,100 garment workers were killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex three years ago.
Saturday’s fire was the latest in a series of deadly industrial disasters that have struck the South Asian country in recent years, exposing widespread problems with workplace safety and raising questions about enforcement of building codes at factories nationwide.
The explosion and fire at the Tampaco factory began at around 6 a.m., but after firefighters put out the flames late in the day, first responders Saturday night were still looking for more bodies or people who might still be trapped alive beneath the smoky rubble of the collapsed buildings, authorities said.
They said around 100 workers were believed to be inside the building when the explosion occurred. Reports conflicted as to how many people were hurt in the disaster. At least 50 injured people were taken to local hospitals, officials said, but other reports put the figure as high as at least 70.
Authorities said they would open an investigation and that the company’s owners could face criminal charges.
“What I have seen here is an industry with bad safety provisions. Whether they had proper permission or not, proper documents, we will have to look into it,” Police Inspector-General A.K.M. Shahidul Hoque said while visiting the site of the disaster on the outskirts of Dhaka, according to Reuters.
Ahmed, the chief building safety inspector, said the Tampaco Foils Limited factory worked round-the-clock and employed 258 workers in three eight-hour shifts.
Tampaco, which was established in 1978, packages products for local affiliates of Western brands including the Nestlé and Nabisco food companies and British American Tobacco, according to the firm’s website.
“My company is fully compliant and I've never sacrificed on quality, as my clients are mainly multinational companies,” Reuters quoted Tampaco Chairman Syed Mokbul Hossain, a former Bangladeshi parliamentarian, as saying Saturday.
“Now my only focus is on my workers who were injured and on those who died. We will take care of them.”
Not counting Saturday’s fire, as many as 1,376 people have died in three large-scale industrial disasters in the country dating to June 2010.
In July, 38 people, including the owner of Rana Plaza, were charged with murder in Bangladesh’s deadliest industrial disaster to date.
The latest disaster reflected the government’s “myopic” actions and policies in safeguarding the lives of factory workers who are integral to Bangladesh’s economy, said Sultan Uddin Khan, executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS).
“After the Rana Plaza tragedy, the government has given attention to improving the working conditions at the ready-made garment (RMG) factories due to pressure from the international buyers. But they [the government] did not attend to the safety of workers employed in other industries,” Khan told BenarNews,
“Ensuring the safety of the RMG sector only is a myopic view of the government,” he added.
Syed Ahmed defended his department against Khan’s criticism, saying it had been inspecting the factories of other industries to ensure worker safety.
“We have been in gradual improvement,” Ahmed said.
Boiler blasts a common occurrence: Chemist
Meanwhile, according to Dr. Mohammad Nurnabi, a professor of applied chemistry at the University of Dhaka, boiler-room explosions happen frequently in Bangladesh.
These are partly caused by the use of untreated water in boilers, which, he said, often are not properly cleaned. He said this was necessary to remove a build-up of calcium, which could hazardous leaks in boilers.
“The factory owners should use purified water, what we call boiler-fed water, for boilers. But the factory owners in Bangladesh, in most of the cases, use ordinary water to reduce expenditure,” Nurnabi told BenarNews.
Firefighters work to put out a blaze at the factory in Tongi, Sept. 10, 2016. [Newsroom Photo]