Friday, 19 November 2010.

Flammable ‘energy conservation’ foam installed in building caused rapid spread of flames

Kate Devlin,

A national crackdown on unsafe practises in the construction industry has been announced in the wake of a fatal fire that destroyed a 28-storey residential high-rise in the Jing’an district of Shanghai this past Monday, November 15. The death toll has risen to 58 people, with “more than 40 names” still unaccounted for according to Shanghai’s media. A major cause of the fire was the flammable energy coneservation foam packed into the buildings walls as part of a government ordered pilot scheme to reduce energy usage. Other still occupied buildings in the same district are being upgraded with the same material. Local residents in these buildings were refusing to talk to journalists, very likely on orders from the housing company.

This was the most deadly blaze in China since 53 people died in a supermarket fire in Jilin province in 2003. In Shanghai, with 20 million people, Monday’s fire has prompted intense debate and a certain sense of panic about safety on construction sites which are everywhere around.

“I never thought a fire could end up killing so many people,” the New York Times quoted Li Dezhu, a 66-year-old retiree who escaped from the 17th floor of the building. “We’ve heard about hotels and other entertainment places on fire, but never a residence.” A recent survey found that 84% of the city’s population had never taken part in a fire drill and one if four said they were “completely clueless” about fire prevention.

“Look at that – that’s the product of our nation’s rapid economic development,” one onlooker at the building’s burned out shell told the South China Morning Post.

The building was built in the 1990s and mainly housed retired teachers. Altogether, 25 fire units were called to fight the fire. Three helicopters came to assist in the rescue but were prevented from helping by the thick smoke. The upper portion of the building was beyond the reach of fire fighters, with fire hoses only long enough to reach the middle levels of the building. Some survivors were miraculously able to escape the fire by climbing intact sections of the scaffolding to safety. 

“Multiple subcontracting” to blame

The fire seems to have been started by sparks from unlicensed welding equipment used on one of the higher floors. The building was being refitted with energy-saving insulation under a government pilot scheme. The foam used, which has been discovered to be flammable has now been identified by the high-level investigation team sent to the area, as the main cause of the extent of the blaze. This material, together with bamboo and nylon nets which are often used as scaffolding in China, combined to form a highly flammable mix.

The investigation team has also blamed the catastrophe on “multiple subcontracting of construction works” – a common practise in the industry as major often state-owned companies hire out the work to private subcontractors that rely on largely untrained migrant labour. The team, led by State Administration and Work Safety director Luo Lin, found that large amounts of highly flammable nylon netting and polystyrene were used, which caused the rapid spread of the fire. It also found workers had been rushing to meet a deadline. The welding team whose equipment caused the blaze had no authorisation to be at the site.

The construction company involved, Shanghai Jiayi, is owned by the Jingan government. Following Monday’s tragedy it has been revealed that the company won 35 of the last 36 contracts put out to tender by the Jingan government. Having landed these contracts, state-owned companies such as this one subcontract the actual work to a cluster of private firms relying on super-exploited and mostly untrained migrant labour. 

In the wake of this latest construction disaster, the State Council (cabinet) ordered an emergency nationwide review of enforcement of building safety codes, which are notoriously lax. Shanghai like other cities in China has seen a massive construction boom over the past few years. The city, which does not require sprinkler systems for residential buildings, has many nylon-wrapped buildings under construction or undergoing renovations.

The combination of flammable construction materials and lax enforcement of building and safety codes has led to a string of construction accidents and fires throughout China within the past few years. According to Shanghai Daily in June 2009 a nearly finished 13-storey luxury apartment building in Shanghai collapsed, killing one worker. The collapse was caused by the construction of an illegal parking garage nearby and the piling of dirt along the soon to be opened building. Two developers were convicted of embezzlement and corruption and sentenced to life in prison.

Profits and corruption

The Shanghai blaze has triggered enormous debate on internet sites. Huasheng Online, run by a Hunan Province newspaper group, posted articles complaining about China’s breakneck building boom, saying: “These short-lived constructions are the great disaster left by the Chinese real estate industry’s insane attempts to make money. What is this kind of economic development for? Is it just for accumulating golden bubbles? Is it so the people can live in utter helplessness? Is it so certain corrupt officials will have a large space to embezzle?”  Government censors quickly blocked this and other critical articles. 

China is in the midst of a major real estate development boom, consuming 40 percent of the world’s cement and steel. Developers are working to acquire land and build and sell residential property as fast as possible. According to World Market Intelligence, China’s construction industry doubled in size between 2005 and 2009. Yet various studies have shown that nine out of ten construction workers have no training. Shortcuts involving shoddy materials and techniques and often involving official corruption are very common. This represents an enormous waste of material, energy and labour power given the short lifespan of China’s buildings and the tragic toll in human lives this exacts 

An official of China’s housing and rural development ministry admitted that Chinese buildings were built to last 25-30 years, compared with 74 years in the United States. Fire fighting technology is also lagging; with many fire hoses in China only able to reach the middle of many residential high rises. In Beijing in February 2009, a tragedy occurred when a 34-story hotel and cultural centre was set alight by an illegal fireworks show. Fire hoses were unable to reach the upper two-thirds of the building. 

The Shanghai tragedy underlines the need for construction workers in China to belong to independent and democratic trade unions with the power to inspect safety arrangements and halt work on unsatisfactory projects. The similarities with the coal industry and its appalling accident rate are striking. The only way to stamp out reckless work practises, lack of training, and exploitation of cheap labour, all of which are driven by cost cutting, corruption and profit-seeking, is to reorganise the construction industry under public ownership and democratic workers’ control and management. A battery of laws in China prohibits dangerous practises, poor construction standards and materials, but these laws are widely ignored by managers watching their ‘bottom line’. The only way to break this deadly trend is for democratic workers’ organisations to emerge and take control.