Chinese Officials Ignored Safety Violations, Leading To The Industrial Fire That Killed 121 People

(Credit: AP)

Dozens of Chinese public officials were charged Friday with dereliction of duty for failing to inspect the site of a deadly fire that killed 121 in June. The Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co. plant became China’s worst industrial disaster in five years when a short circuit ignited flammable materials, creating a fire that spread rapidly. Workers struggled to escape, but the safety exits were blocked — just one of the many safety violations that officials ignored for years.

The plant’s assets have been frozen and its owners have been arrested. Now, the township head, local building officials, a township police chief, and fire officials are all facing criminal charges for allowing the plant to operate without scrutiny. The building was riddled with safety hazards and was constructed of substandard materials that ignited easily. Officials charge that police allowed the plant to stay open despite failure to hold fire drills, provide safety training or install sufficient fire-extinguishing equipment.

Local bureaucrats in China are notoriously corrupt and often strike deals with companies to overlook violations. The nation’s rapid industrialization has often come at the expense of labor rights, safety and the environment. But recent global scrutiny on China’s food safety struggles, pollution problems, and industrial negligence have prompted aggressive if belated action by the central government to punish lax officials.

In the U.S., where the massively destructive West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion has been followed by similar disasters in Louisiana and Indiana, the political reaction has been muted. Like the Chinese poultry plant, these companies had gone without inspection for decades, even after being cited for serious violations. A criminal probe into West Fertilizer Company has thus far made little headway.

While the efficacy of China’s tendency to punish actors after disasters have already occurred is debatable, it is virtually impossible to successfully prosecute workplace crimes in the U.S. Criminal investigators pointed out to the New York Times that employers rarely get jail time when employees die on the job, even if there is clear evidence of misconduct and willful negligence.

Regulatory safeguards and preventative inspections are also rarely enforced; the average workplace gets inspected every 99 years from the desperately cash-strapped and constantly embattled Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As a result, the U.S. is regularly plagued by deadly and preventable industrial disasters that cost the economy billions of dollars every year.