A suspected gas leakage at maharatna PSU Steel Authority of India Ltd's Rourkela Steel plant in Odisha led to the death of four contract workers on Wednesday. The incident once again brutally exposes the lax safety record of one of India's largest steel producers.
The four workers belonged to a private firm and were engaged in maintenance work of the coal chemical department. They became unconscious after a suspected leakage of carbon monoxide at 9 AM and were rushed to the local Ispat General Hospital, where they succumbed after a few hours.
"In an unfortunate incident at SAIL Rourkela Steel Plant, four contract workers engaged at the Plant's Coal Chemicals Department (CCD) have succumbed to a suspected gas leakage incident. SAIL family is deeply saddened by the loss of lives and stand strong with the affected families at this time of grief," the company said in a statement. "A high-level committee has been formed to inquire into the cause of the incident and all emergency protocols have been immediately activated in the Plant."
Steel Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, himself a native of Odisha, too took to Twitter to express his condolences.
"Grieved at the loss of lives in unfortunate incident at SAIL Rourkela Steel Plant. My thoughts are with the affected families at this hour of grief," he tweeted in the afternoon.
This is the seventh safety related incident at SAIL's factories in the last few years. Last year, the company's Bokaro Steel Plant in Jharkhand suffered four incidents in a span of just two weeks. On 6 May, a loco pilot working in the transport department, came in contact with the 25,000KV wire, suffered deep burns from the high voltage shock and died in hospital on 16 May. A few days later, on 11 May, a general manger and two workers became unconscious when nitrogen gas leaked while a transformer was being installed. The gas should have been released in an open environment before the installation. At that time the victims recovered fully and no casualty was reported.
In the same week, however, two contract workers at the same plant suffered burn injuries in a fire while working on a live electrical line. Another fire occurred during the same month at Ferro Scrap Nigam Limited, a subsidiary of SAIL located inside the Bokaro plant. Two contract workers suffered 30 per cent burns while welding the diesel tank of an automobile crane.
The company's biggest factory at Bhilai in Chhattisgarh also has an unenviable safety record. On October 9, 2018, an explosion at the plant killed 14 workers. The blast occurred in a gas pipeline connected to the coke oven section of the plant during a maintenance job. It was not a one-off incident. On May 24, there was a minor fire at the Bhilai plant, though no one was injured. In June 2014, six people, including two deputy general managers, had died in that factory due to gas leakage. The 2018 incident had happened barely two weeks after A K Chaudhary became the chairman of the firm.
"It was really unfortunate... and I had to face it soon after I took charge. But we have become more careful now. We are doing whatever lies within our realm so that not even a single fatality happens at SAIL in the future," he told Business Today in June 2019. "All our plants have been given strict instructions that no production will happen at the cost of safety."
The pattern has not changed. Chaudhary retired on December 31, 2020 and Soma Mondal took charge of the company becoming the first woman top boss at the PSU on January 1. The Rourkela tragedy has happened within a week of her appointment, a stark reminder of what her priorities ought to be.