China's top work safety official issued a stinging criticism of company management and government regulatory efforts following Monday's deadly poultry plant fire that killed 120 and injured 77. Yang Dongliang, director of the State Administration of Work Safety, said the fire was caused by negligence on the part of the plant's management as well as supervisory authorities.
The board chairman and general manager of the Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Company have been detained by police, and the firm's assets have been frozen and all of its licenses have been revoked.
Some 350 workers were inside the plant when the early morning fire broke out and rapidly spread through the facility. Workers struggling to get out were blocked by locked or blocked doors - the plant had only one open exit. In addition, those who escaped said the building's narrow hallways made it difficult to reach the exit.
"You had to get the team leader's permission before going to the toilet, and the doors would only be opened then," a former worker named Li told CCTV, China's state television station.
Some reports said the explosion was caused by leakage in one of the plant's liquid ammonia tanks. Ammonia is used as a refrigerant in the food-processing industry. It is highly flammable, as shown in the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion in April which killed 14 and injured about 200.
"The company must not shirk its responsibility to maintain safety, nor can the government shirk its management and supervisory responsibilities," said Yang, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.
Yang spoke Thursday at an investigative work team meeting in Changchun, capital of Jilin Province in northeast China, where the poultry plant is located.
An initial investigation by the team showed that work safety management at the plant was a "total mess," Yang said.
The company failed to implement an accountability system for workplace safety and thoroughly eliminate work safety hazards, he said.
The company also failed to conduct safety drills and offer safety awareness education to its employees, the investigation team found.
"The company's management of employees was chaotic. No training, no drills. Many people died near the gate," Yang said.
"It's too early to say for certain whether the emergency exits were locked or not. But one thing is for sure: they could not be opened," he said.
A former worker named Li told CCTV, the state television station, "You had to get the team leader's permission before going to the toilet, and the doors would only be opened then."
Yang said the accident also demonstrated that local governments and relevant authorities failed to fulfill their supervisory responsibilities.
Bayanqolu, the governor of Jilin Province and deputy head of the investigation team, said the government's work safety supervision efforts have many loopholes
"The company emphasized production and efficiency but neglected safety and workers' lives, causing irreversible losses," he said. "As governor, I feel deeply guilty."
The Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Company, which opened in 2009, is a major producer of processed chicken and employs about 1,200 people. The area is an agribusiness center, especially for poultry. One of the biggest producers of broiler chickens in China, Jilin Deda Co., is nearby. It is partly owned by Thailand-based conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group.
Chinese authorities said the 2,000 and more dead chickens at the Jilin Baoyuanfeng plant pose a high risk of causing an epidemic. The local government has mobilized 80 rescue workers to curb any potential outbreak, CCTV reported.
A BBC report notes that the Chinese government has made strides in improving workplace safety in recent years. Workplace accidents have dropped more than 33% in the past five years, according to comments made in January by China's then Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang. The death toll from those accidents has also dropped more than 29%.
However, fire accidents at construction sites and agricultural production factories like the Jilin poultry plant are on the rise, according to the most recent data available from China's Public Security Bureau.
Factory managers failed to obey safety procedures, using heat sources and electricity in unsafe ways, the bureau reported.
Photo: In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a family member of a worker cries Monday near the fire at the Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Company in northeast China's Jilin Province. (AP/Xinhua, Jin Liwang)