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NTPC toll up to 32: Barring three, all were contract staff working near boiler

NTPC Chairman and Managing Director Gurdeep Singh told reporters: “Around 80 people were affected due to this accident... 32 succumbed to injuries and 48 are under treatment.”

Written by Deepak Patel , Anil Sasi | New Delhi | Updated: November 4, 2017 6:53 am
NTPC blast, NTPC death toll, unchahar, Rae bareli, yogi adityanath ntpc, Some of the injured were shifted to Delhi on Friday. (Source: Express photo)

As the death toll in the explosion that ripped a boiler at the NTPC’s Unchahar plant in Rae Bareli two days ago climbed to 32 Friday, it emerged that barring three who were NTPC employees, the dead and injured were contract workers.

These workers included those working for firms such as Vijayawada-based Indwell, who were painting the boiler, and Kolkata-based controls and instrumentation company Powertronix, who were either working in the vicinity of the boiler or were called in to assist the process of de-choking the bottom hopper — the funnel-shaped bottom end of the boiler — by using rods to push out ash clinkers while the boiler was in operation, though running at a reduced load. Most workers were probably unaware of the dangers involved in the exercise.

NTPC Chairman and Managing Director Gurdeep Singh told reporters: “Around 80 people were affected due to this accident… 32 succumbed to injuries and 48 are under treatment.”

Sources said some 20-25 workers had been called in to assist in the the de-choking exercise when the accident happened. Usually, only 3-4 persons are present in the boiler zone. Sources said practically all these workers — either dead or injured — would be outside the safety net of an insurance policy that companies such as NTPC and Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (it supplied the boiler) offer to their own employees.

What seems to have precipitated the explosion was that someone opened a water channel in a bid to make it simpler to break the clinker pieces blocking the bottom opening of the ash hopper. This, sources said, could have backfired since the resultant steam would have added to the build-up of pressure in the boiler, triggering the explosion in a part called the economiser hopper which traps coarse ash and is located at a delicate joint in the boiler assembly.

In response to queries sent by The Indian Express, NTPC said only three of its employees were in the casualty list. A spokesperson for NTPC said: “Three employees (out of 80) that were affected because of this accident were NTPC employees. Remaining affected people were working as contract workers for the NTPC and the BHEL.” Don’t know if we’ll ever go back to work there: Victims of NTPC power plant blast

Asked how many of the contract workers were working for each of the two companies, the spokesperson said “it is difficult to differentiate between them and give separate figures as of now”.

According to the spokesperson, the ‘affected’ persons, who were working as contract workers at the accident site, would be eligible for compensation calculated under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923 and announced by the NTPC, the Prime Minister and the UP Chief Minister.

Asked what were 80 people doing around the boiler, CMD Singh said: “There was this other work which was going on for cleaning and for painting and for cladding. These were some of the works that were going on in continuation after the COD also. It was the BHEL and their contractor was Indwell — these were the people who were working on the boiler and on the outside which is not in the operation of the boiler. But when this ash and air came out, they got affected by that. So, they were not involved in the operation at all.”

To a query if the operations team at the site decides whether it is necessary to shut the boiler or not for declogging, Singh said: “There is an operations engineer. There is a shift in-charge engineer over and above them. Then there is an operation in-charge. Then there is a GM (General Manager) and then head of the project. These are the people who would be in constant touch (with one another) and they will decide. This information does not go from the head office (in Delhi) whether to run the boiler or not… They are trained. They are experienced and they are the only competent people to decide.”

According to information gathered from multiple sources, the Unchahar 500 MW Unit No. 6 was running at a load of around 200 MW at 1536 hours Wednesday. Sources said bottom hopper de-ashing was being done by opening the manhole door at around 10 metres height on the boiler platform by an NTPC operations and maintenance team. The boiler was in manual mode of operation then.

While the workers succeeded in opening the 6-8 inch opening at the boiler bottom hopper, air rushed in from the bottom opening, with the result that pressure went up 40 times inside the boiler (from about -10mm to 350 mm in the mercury column). The resultant loss of vacuum, sources said, pushed the entire mass of unburned mass which, instead of burning in the flame chamber, went up and after crossing the superheater, exploded in a part called the economiser hopper.

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  1. S
    Nov 4, 2017 at 11:11 am
    It is appalling how so many temporary workers are employed by the government even in such an important installation. The lowest bidder wins the government contract. These private contractors cut corners for higher profits and do not hire qualified people. Both central and state governments now hire most employees on contract. These workers are paid less than laborers and no benefits. Recently when Delhi state government tried to regularize temporary teachers, central government blocked the initiative.
    1. I
      Nov 4, 2017 at 12:21 pm
      The mania for cost-cutting without taking into account its impact on safety has led to this. The cuurent dispensation with its so-called business friendly face, has without any understanding of the critical safety protocols in engineering undertakings, gone along with the hype about wasteful state enterprises. Safety must be paid for with well trained and permanent staff able to override almost any level of management. The proximate cause of the explosion is apparently leakage of water into the boiler leading to explosive steam pressure. The regular staff at state enterprises such as Neyveli Lignite would have understood this, but contract workers brought for cleaning purposes, cannot be expected to have this experience.
    2. V
      Nov 4, 2017 at 10:33 am
      Agency who designed Bottom ash hopper should also be equally responsible for the death of 30 innocent workers. Actually when you are supplying highly sophisticated costly equipment's then why they malfunction on many occasions...? this proves their design might have major loop holes. This matter should be takenup seriously and their design should be vetted and if found guilty they should be blacklisted in Indian as well as international market.
      1. I
        Nov 4, 2017 at 12:31 pm
        These are expensive and possibly dangerous capital goods, their usage requires trained, motivated and well renumerated personnel. They are not consumer products such as handphones, where anyone from a baby to Steve Jobs is expected to use them. proofing consumer goods are much cheaper in terms of expected costs since malfunctions can be corrected easily in the next production run or software update, and a malfunctioning TV or handphone can be easily replaced. Such is not the case in engineering where Murphy's god is ever ready to wreak to death and destruction at the slightest opportunity. Therefore cost-cutting cannot be at the expense of safety, since the safety protocols and fail-safe measures were painstaking learnt from countless accidents (over centuries in case of boilers), throughout the world.
      2. L
        Lallaa Mastraam
        Nov 4, 2017 at 5:30 am
        “There is an operations engineer. There is a shift in-charge engineer over and above them. Then there is an operation in-charge. Then there is a GM (General Manager) and then head of the project'' typical sarkaari haraamkhor at ude. BHEL and NTPC both should be sold off to private players.
        1. S
          Nov 4, 2017 at 7:19 am
          Who told you that in private companies there are no such accidents?