China plant blast death toll reaches 69 as safety questioned

Medical personnel transport a victim of a factory explosion at a hospital in Kunshan, Jiangsu province on Saturday, Aug 2, 2014. The death toll from an explosion at a Taiwan-invested car parts factory in China reached 69 by Sunday, state media s
Medical personnel transport a victim of a factory explosion at a hospital in Kunshan, Jiangsu province on Saturday, Aug 2, 2014. The death toll from an explosion at a Taiwan-invested car parts factory in China reached 69 by Sunday, state media said, as a labour rights group cast doubt on its safety measures. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SHANGHAI (AFP) - The death toll from an explosion at a Taiwan-invested car parts factory in China reached 69 by Sunday, state media said, as a labour rights group cast doubt on its safety measures.

The blast on Saturday in a wheel hub polishing workshop at the Zhongrong Metal Products Co. in Kunshan, near Shanghai, also left nearly 200 injured, state television said, many with severe burns.

The force of the explosion caused metal siding on the factory building to peel back, AFP journalists saw, while state television showed broken machinery and smashed windows.

Kunshan's mayor Lu Jun on Saturday classified the incident as a "serious" industrial accident which a preliminary investigation showed was caused by the ignition of powder or dust from the production process.

Authorities have detained two company officials, the official Xinhua news agency said, but did not name them.

The firm makes parts for car companies including US giant General Motors (GM).

China has a dismal industrial safety record as some owners evade regulations to save money and pay off corrupt officials to look the other way.

US-based China Labor Watch, a workers' rights group, said proper measures could have prevented the accident.

"Safety measures like ventilation systems should have prevented such accumulation of dust particles. This tragedy is a result of lax safety standards in the workplace," it said in a statement.

Dust suspended in the air in the right concentration can cause explosions, according to safety experts, with even materials that do not normally burn in larger pieces becoming explosive in certain conditions.

Kunshan, in the eastern province of Jiangsu and known as a centre for Taiwanese investment in China, was unable to handle the number of burn victims with more than 130 of them sent to hospitals in surrounding areas including Shanghai.

- Supply chain -

Zhongrong was a contractor for a global supplier of GM, Dicastal, though the US company did not have direct contact with it, GM said in a statement provided to AFP on Sunday.

"Our direct suppliers are required to source from tier-2 suppliers who must meet both in-country environment and safety standards, as well as quality standards," it said.

Citic Dicastal Wheel Manufacturing Co., set up in 1988, is mainland China's first aluminium alloy wheel maker, according to its website.

As well as the factory, New York-based China Labor Watch also took aim at GM, saying it "has a duty to ensure safe production in its supply chain and it shares responsibility for this deadly explosion".

Chinese state media also weighed in, saying the explosion revealed "safety loopholes".

"Checks are usual, but after the checks, no one's really following any safety rules," a Zhongrong worker was quoted as saying by the Xinhua news agency.

China had 644 of what it calls "large" accidents in the first seven months this year, killing 2,695 people, according to the State Administration of Work Safety.

In a similar accident two years ago, an explosion caused by combustible dust at an aluminium lock workshop in the eastern city of Wenzhou killed 13, according to state media.

The remnants of aluminium powder at an abandoned railway factory in Jiangsu exploded and killed 11 people in 2009.