Firefighters struggled to extinguish the fire that raged at the Nan Ya Plastics white pearl paper plant in Chiayi on Sunday, taking about 17 hours to put it out. The thick fumes that billowed out of the blaze were blamed for a black-colored rain that occurred shortly after, thought to be the result of partially combusted carbon residue in the air. This should be a wake-up call for the nation about its lax attitude toward industrial safety.
Even though Nan Ya is listed on the stock exchange separately from Formosa Plastics, it is actually a member of Formosa Group. Fires at Formosa’s sixth naphtha cracker in Yunlin are still very fresh in the memory, having happened in July this year. The group is still smarting from the compensation it had to pay for those fires, so the Nan Ya blaze only adds to the financial burden and deepens the damage done to the company’s reputation.
The group has come under scrutiny and criticism from all quarters and it seems to have gone adrift since the death of its founder Wang Yung-ching (王永慶). In the face of this string of industrial accidents, safety and restoring the group’s battered corporate image have become priorities.
That these accidents are, to some extent at least, the product of this nation’s industrial culture is a damning indictment of attitudes toward safety in this country. On Thursday, seven lives were lost when scaffolding collapsed along a section of highway in Nantou County, and before that there was an uproar when an engineer died, seemingly from overwork. Sadly, it appears that all sectors of industry are affected by this indifference to basic health and safety principles.
This nation has paid insufficient attention to industrial safety and the problems are across the board.
First, workers tend to shy away from hassle. The slapdash attitude — the “oh, it’ll be alright” approach — to health and safety is still very much with us and this makes it difficult to implement safety rules effectively. Indeed, “the devil is in the details,” and that devil is behind the recent string of accidents.
The second problem is with the industrialists — the top brass. With wafer-thin profits and mounting benefit costs, even the managerial system at a major enterprise, such as Formosa Group, is built around cost-cutting and efficiency, and this tends to come at the expense of safety. In the past, keeping costs low across the board was considered a virtue. Perhaps pressure from the increasing emphasis on human rights, the environment and sufficient wages has exacerbated safety problems.
Finally, monitoring by the government doesn’t seem to be working, either.
After any accident, the Council of Labor Affairs declares that it will “assess the system of accountability” and “conduct a survey of safety in the workplace and fines,” but none of this can make up for the loss of life.
While there is obviously a need to do something, there seems to be a huge gap between the regulations that appear on paper and the regulations that are enforced.
Occupational safety needs to be examined at every level; from the health and safety management procedures of major enterprises to fire prevention and safety protection at individual sites, to fire exits in department stores. Unfortunately, it is often a case of “all talk and no action.” The string of accidents and disaster at Formosa Group plants are not the fault of one particular group: The blame lies with the government, industry and workers alike.
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