Rescuers in protective suits are scrambling to clean up hundreds of tonnes of toxic cyanide at the site of explosions in the northern port city of Tianjin, and state-run media has criticised officials for their lack of transparency over the blasts that have killed 114.
The death toll is expected to rise as a further 70 people, mostly firemen, remain missing.
The fireball that tore through a warehouse storing hazardous chemicals last Wednesday night left behind a devastated landscape littered with incinerated cars, crumpled shipping containers and shattered windows on buildings several kilometres away hit by shockwaves from the blasts. As fears grow about air quality in the city, criticism in the press has mounted, with editorials fingering local officials for the slow release of information.
"During the first dozens of hours after the blasts, there was scant information offered by the Tianjin authorities," the Global Times said in an editorial. "A single slow reaction can lead to rumours running riot. And in turn, public confidence in the government will continue to fall."
China Daily's editorial noted that many questions remain to be answered. "When the entire site will be cleared up remains a question, and whether there is still any potential health threat from toxic gas in the air or contamination of the nearby environment remains to be determined," it said.
Officials yesterday promised to clear most of the toxic sodium cyanide at the periphery of the blast area by the end of the day.
The quality of the air and water in the nearby river is within safe standards, they said at a press conference, even as some 200 residents gathered outside the venue demanding compensation for their damaged homes.
The Tianjin disaster is just the latest in a string of deadly industrial accidents in China occurring against the backdrop of three decades of frenetic economic growth which has left workplace safety standards struggling to keep up.
As recently as last month, 15 people were killed and more than a dozen injured when an illegal fireworks warehouse exploded in northern Hebei province.
Top Chinese leaders have repeatedly demanded that safety issues be tackled but such calls have gained little ground on the factory floor.
Last Saturday, President Xi Jinping, for instance, urged the authorities to learn from the "extremely profound" lessons paid for with blood from the Tianjin blasts which, besides killing 114, have also caused injuries to more than 700 people. It could turn out to be an expensive tragedy, with media reports estimating insurance claims of up to 10 billion yuan (S$2.2 billion).
But Mr Xi's call is not new. He had similarly pressed for efforts to resolve China's "deep-rooted" safety issues in June 2013 after some 120 people died when a fire broke out at a poultry plant in northern Jilin province.
Experts say despite high-level attention to the issue, workplace safety continues to be a problem in China because of poor enforcement of safety regulations and lax controls over inspections and training.
While many workplace safety rules exist, they are not strictly enforced, partly due to corruption that allows business owners to evade regulations in pursuit of profit, according to the experts.
Mr He Shusheng, a Tianjin vice-mayor, told a news conference "around 700 tonnes" of sodium cyanide were stored at the warehouse where the blasts took place, significantly more than it was authorised to do so. The Beijing News, citing storage plans it had seen, said the warehouse was authorised to hold only 24 tonnes of the substance.
Mr Li Qiang, founder of China Labour Watch, told The Straits Times that properly ensuring workplace safety will significantly raise a firm's cost. "The penalties of safety violations are also not severe in China. Many businesses just hope to be lucky and escape having industrial accidents," he said. "The enforcement by local governments is another issue; in many cases, firms simply pay the fines and are able to pass safety inspections."
And Mr Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin which promotes workers' rights, pointed out: "There is no shortage of legislation on workplace safety in China, the problem is it's simply not enforced on the ground."
There are rules, for instance, for machine inspection, safe operation, and even upper levels for labour intensity to prevent injuries from overwork.
Statistically, there seems to have been some improvement in the area of work safety, although overall numbers remain shocking. Figures from the State Administration of Work Safety show that in the first six months of this year there were 139,000 industrial accidents and 26,000 deaths. This is a 7.5 per cent and 5.5 per cent decrease respectively, from the same period last year - but it is still an average of 143 workers killed daily.
China is the world's largest producer of coal and in this sector there has been notable progress. Accidents in Chinese coal mines killed 931 people last year, according to official figures, down from 7,000 in 2002 as the consolidation of the industry led to many small mines being closed.
China's top prosecutor has opened an investigation into the Tianjin blasts, which have reignited the debate about safety standards in the country. Experts say simply passing more laws will not solve the problem. Rather, a change in mindset is sorely needed.
"The only way to improve safety is to make it a priority in the workplace, to create a culture where employers, employees and regulators all stress the importance of safety over the blind pursuit of profit," Mr Crothall told The Straits Times.
This article was first published on August 18, 2015.
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