Around 6 pm on June 12, 53-year-old N K Katariya, a deputy general manager at Bhilai Steel plant and a father of two, was getting into his car for a short drive home when he saw his colleague B K Singh. Like Katariya, Singh, another DGM at the water supply department of the steel plant, was winding up work that evening when he was informed about a rupture on the main header pipe of the plant’s pump house, which supplied water to the gas cleaning plant of the blast furnaces.
Katariya dropped his bag and joined Singh in rushing across, as any flooding would endanger the blast furnaces and may force a shutdown at the steel plant, a flagship unit of state-owned Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL). The two managers were joined by half-a-dozen other employees.
At the pump house, the team was oblivious to early indication of trouble — pigeons were falling in droves from their perches above the facility. As the water supply to the gas cleaning plant had been stopped to prevent flooding, there was a sudden drop in pressure, forcing gas from the blast furnace scrubbers to enter the pipeline. When the pipeline ruptured, there was a surge of a deadly cocktail of methane and the colourless and odourless carbon monoxide. In a matter of minutes, the team working on the line started dropping one by one.
The leakage of carbon monoxide at the plant affected 36 people, of which five, including Katariya and Singh, died during treatment, while the body of Vikas Verma — a 24-year-old contract worker — was found 30 feet down in the pump site after the water was drained.
The casualties could have been higher, had it not been for a fortuitous event. Durg Collector R Shangeetha, who was just 12 days into her job when the accident happened, told The Indian Express that there was a CISF mock drill happening near the plant around the time of the accident, so the jawans managed to carry the 36 people in time to the hospital.
SAIL described it as a “freak accident”, the first such event in 50 years. But hardly any lessons seem to have been learnt by India’s flagship firms. Just three days later, on June 16, two engineers of a private firm — SMS Seimag India Ltd — died of suspected gas leak at the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant, a unit of state-owned steel company Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Ltd (RINL). Preliminary reports attributed the reason to suspected carbon monoxide poisoning.
In fact, if just the steel sector were to be considered, across the two flagship state-owned steel firms — SAIL and RINL — nearly 100 workmen have died in a series of accidents in the two-year period till July 2014. The biggest single event was in June 2012, when over a dozen employees, including some senior executives, died at an accident in RINL’s Visakhapatnam plant.
Consider these cases in just this year:
* On June 17, four days after the gas leak in the Bhilai Steel plant, a 25-year-old contractual welder, working in a section of a blast furnace died after receiving an electric shock and falling down.
* On September 25, at least 26 workers were severely burnt following a blast in a coke oven battery of the greenfield project in the upcoming integrated steel plant of SAIL’s subsidiary IISCO at Burnpur. Workers of Bhilai Engineering Corporation (BEC), the sub-contractors, were engaged in electrical maintenance of the oven at the time.
* On October 8, in a bizarre incident, a 53-year-old Assistant General Manager of the Bhilai Steel Plant official was killed after he was crushed by a locomotive inside the Bhilai steel plant. B R Dewangan was at the raw material unloading region in the blast furnace ore trench when the accident occurred.
According to P K Das, General Secretary, Steel Workers Federation of India and Governor, National Safety Council, political pressure is one of the factors behind these accidents. In SAIL’s Durgapur Steel Plant, he alleged that after the Trinamool Congress came to power, all old and experienced contractor workers were “forcefully terminated and replaced by 3,500 Trinamool supporters straight from the their party offices”.
As a consequence, Das claimed, there were 18 deaths among the contract workers in Durgapur Steel Plant since 2011. In the Alloy Steel plant, a young contract worker died in an accident on his first day at the job. Added to this, he said, is the hurry to get production moving, without adherence to proper safety measures.
On the June 12 Bhilai gas leak, S S Mohanty, SAIL’s Director (Technical), said: “The Bhilai accident has been something of a first of its kind, which has forced not just us, but others as well, to go back to the drawing board… There are some design failures that have come up after 50 years of running the plant.”
Mohanty added that the carbon monoxide entering the water pipeline system was, by itself, a contingency that most steel plants are not designed for. There was an element of human error as well, as those who rushed to the pump house that day did not wear protective gear that was, according to Mohanty, available at the site.
On the subsequent death of the AGM in Bhilai in October, Mohanty said the freak incident appears to have resulted from an “error of judgement” on part of the officer, who was standing on the railway line while the loco approached.
The situation was aggravated as visibility was low due to limestone dust, he added. “We have made it mandatory that anybody signalling to a loco should not stand on the line and should stand only on the platform,” Mohanty said.
But it is not just a steel sector problem. A series of accidents have plagued other flagship plants run by some of the country’s biggest companies.
* On the evening of November 7, 2013, three contract workers were killed in an accident at Unit 4 of NTPC Ltd’s thermal plant at Ramagundam in Karimnagar district. The workers, deployed at a coal feeder, fell from a height of 20 metres at about 5.30 pm and died on the spot. All three were cleaning the pipeline of coal storage bunker.
* On June 29, 2014, 22 people were killed, including three women and three children, and 38 others injured following a blast in a gas pipeline belonging to GAIL in East Godavari district on Friday. The blast took place in the early hours, in Nagaram village in Amalapuram mandal, about 560 km from Hyderabad.
* On August 1, 2014, five workers were killed in a massive explosion that occurred early in the morning at an explosive manufacturing unit of Navbharat Fuse Company Ltd at Chote Urla Village, Abhanpur Block, about 40 km from Raipur. The explosion occurred in the detonating cords unit, where PETN (penta erythritol tetra nitrate) is used to coat the fuse — the entire structure, which had about 142 kg of highly explosive PETN stored in it, came crumbling down from the impact.
* On August 8, 2014, eight people, including two engineers, were injured following release of ash from a boiler at NTPC unit in Korba. The accident occurred while ash was being cleaned from a boiler.
Yet, the learnings from these incidents are nowhere close to being implemented in making Indian steel plants better places to work in. For instance, the Bhilai gas leak highlighted the need for placing gas masks in strategic locations; installing carbon monoxide monitoring systems that generate alerts when gas reaches certain levels; and strengthening of infrastructure, especially pipelines.
An audit of all the other steel plants has already been conducted to prevent another such incident and new installations are now being planned with non-retractable valves, Mohanty said. But the real test would be in implementing all these renewed measures on the ground, if a situation like the one on the evening of June 12 at Bhilai were to happen again.