Over 70 killed in explosion at Kunshan, China wheel plant

An explosion at Zhongrong Metal Produxts Co Ltd killed at least 70 people on 2 August. One source put the figure as high as 75. According to the local People’s Daily newspaper, 44 died in the initial blast with others being pronounced dead in hospital. National broadcaster CCTV reported that 187 others were injured in the blast, although other sources put this figure at 200 or more.

Zhongrong Metal Products Co Ltd is situated in Kunshan, China. Kunshan is an industrial district on the outskirts of Shanghai and is home to a number of well-known tyre and wheel factories. According to the firm, Zhongrong customers include General Motors and other US firms. However, following earlier news reports suggesting Zhongrong was a key supplier to GM, the carmaker distanced itself from the firm’s activities calling it a “tier two supplier” to  Dicastal who it regards as it primary source of wheels in China. For its part Dicastal is one of, if not the, largest wheel supplier in China. 24 hours after the explosion, Reuters reported that GM had asked Dicastal to find a new sub-contractor.

Zhongrong is understood to specialize in polishing/chrome plating alloy wheels – a process that is often outsourced by larger firms. Early reports said the explosion was caused the ignition of metallic dust as workers were polishing wheels. This is plausible because this procedure is known to be hazardous. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration says hexavalent chromium is hazard in industries such as electroplating and therefore requires “sufficient local exhaust ventilation to avoid risks of inhaling it and sparking explosion”. An extraction and ventilation problem could therefore have been behind the explosion.

Warnings ignored?

The Xinhua news agency has reported that five supervisors at the factory were being questioned in what the authorities described as an investigation into potential criminal negligence by the plant’s management.

The Xinmin Evening News reported that some employees at the Zhongrong plant had complained about poor ventilation and the buildup of dust in the polishing workshops.

After this Xinhua reported that Chinese industrial safety officials were pointing the finger at the chairman of Zhongrong calling the incident a “very serious dereliction of duty.”

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