Four dead after factory blast

2008-02-25 00:00

FOUR workers died yesterday after an explosion at the Assmang plant in Cato Ridge — the day before an inquiry was due to start into whether workers have suffered manganese poisoning.

Four workers were being treated for serious burns yesterday, while another was treated and discharged from hospital.

Operations at the factory, which is a subsidiary of African Rainbow Minerals Limited, chaired by tycoon Patrice Motsepe, were shut down yesterday in the aftermath of the explosion, which led to a massive fire. It is believed that the factory will remain closed for the duration of a full-scale investigation into the incident.

This is the second time horrific deaths have occurred at Assmang in the last three months — a worker was killed when molten manganese shot out of the furnace in December.

The plant has also been blamed for the death of foreman Freddy Wright last year, allegedly as a result of manganese poisoning.

Shocked dayshift workers were yesterday told to go home early. Other workers, who are apparently union members, were seen holding a meeting discussing the deadly blast, which happened at about 3 am.

The Witness was prevented from coming near the facility or taking pictures by a man at the gate who said that management would release a statement later from the head office in Johannesburg.

Ambulances, fire engines and police vehicles were seen coming in and out of the factory yesterday morning while relatives of the injured arrived in two minibus taxis, and were later taken to hospitals in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, where the injured are being treated.

“People always sustain burn injuries here, and working conditions are not improving to ensure our safety. As much as salaries are good, we are not safe at all,” said one worker, who asked not to be named.

One worker died soon after the blast, and three others, who were badly burned, died in hospital during the day.

Sources said the injured workers were working on furnace five when the blast occurred on furnace six. They said the workers tried to escape, but a wall collapsed on to them. One worker died at the scene, while the others were burned by molten metal and flames.

Day shift workers said furnace six was shut down for the whole day on Saturday, after it was suspected that it was not safe to operate. However, night shift staff switched it on.

“It is possible that the worker who died on scene was also suffocated by the gas, because when the wall collapsed it damaged a gas cylinder, resulting in a fire. Even now there is still a heavy smell of gas inside,” said a worker, who spoke to The Witness on his way home.

Injured workers were taken to St Anne’s Hospital and Medi-Clinic in Pietermaritzburg, while others were taken to Durban’s Entabeni Hospital.

Police spokesman Senior Superintendent Henry Budhram said an inquest will be conducted, as well as a joint investigation by police and the Labour Department to establish the cause of the incident.

Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana expressed his condolences to the bereaved families of the deceased yesterday and said the department will do “whatever it takes” to check if all aspects of the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Regulations were complied with.

Labour inspectors indicated in a preliminary report that a water leakage into furnace number six may be the cause of the explosion.

The impact of the explosion resulted in the collapse of a wall of the control room facing the furnace, allowing flames to engulf the entire room, the department said in a statement yesterday.

“It is alleged that a worker who was alone in the control room monitoring the furnaces at that time [became] trapped in the fire and was killed at the scene.”

The other eight injured employees (three of whom later died) were working close to the furnace and sustained serious burns, he said.

The six furnaces were all decommissioned until a risk assessment is conducted to ascertain if the furnaces can become operational again.

A full-scale occupational health and safety investigation will continue today to determine the cause of the incident and necessary steps to be taken, should any areas of non-compliance be detected.

Despite assurances that Assmang management would release a statement yesterday, The Witness was repeatedly told that they were “in meetings” and were unavailable to comment.

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