Death comes too easy in our land of perils

Death comes too easy in our land of perils

The deaths of five people in a wastewater collective pond show that even a giant company's claims about high safety standards may be just PR spin. (Screen grab YouTube/detikcom)
The deaths of five people in a wastewater collective pond show that even a giant company's claims about high safety standards may be just PR spin. (Screen grab YouTube/detikcom)

Thai society is lamenting the tragic death of five people who fell into a wastewater treatment pond at Charoen Pokphand Foods Plc's (CPF) poultry processing plant last week.

We initially became angry, knowing such deaths are preventable. The victims' families clearly deserve answers about how the company could let such a thing happen. I hope the media and society will relentlessly pursue the case until those answers are brought to light.

The big question is a simple one: Why was an intern allowed access to such a hazardous zone without proper protective gear.

Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.

After all, the area where the accident took place is highly dangerous. It's not just a pond with a massive amount of stinky, soupy waste. The site is an enclosed wastewater treatment system using an anaerobic biological digestion method. The process entails two harmful conditions: A lack of oxygen and the creation of some extremely toxic gases -- ammonia, methane and hydrogen sulphide.

The toxic gases can block the uptake of oxygen into our bodies. Inhaling these toxic gases over a period of time -- 30 minutes if the concentration exceeds 100 parts per-million (PPM) -- will cause death. The time can be shortened to only two to three seconds if the toxic gas concentration is over 1,000 PPM.

Under labour safety laws, companies with such systems are required to install equipment indicating the oxygen level. Only trained rescue workers with mandatory safety gear, including protective suits, masks and oxygen tanks are permitted to carry out rescue operations in case they have to jump into the toxic pond. Without proper measures and trained personnel on the scene, death can result, as grimly evidenced by this case.

Personally, I am curious why this particular case drew so much attention. Is it because we are frustrated by a lack of safety standards that are inexcusable, or because it involved the death of people with a bright future ahead of them? Maybe it's simply because the factory is operated by the Charoen Pokphand business empire, which is synonymous with the mega rich. The company often boasts of its good standards. This case shows the huge discrepancy between PR and the reality on the ground.

Putting aside the identity of the responsible company, I'm hoping the collective frustration does not subside.

Needless to say, we Thais are notorious for our devil-may-care attitude and our penchant for ignorance when it comes to safety issues, especially those regarding scientific details such as chemical or toxic agents.

I can recall numerous cases: A major fire and explosion at a chemical depot in Klong Toey three decades ago; a toxic chemical spill from a capsized truck on the expressway over a decade ago; a group of garbage scavengers who died as they pried open a capsule containing nuclear radioactive waste known as Cobalt-60. I wonder whether we'll ever learn our lesson.

Maybe not. Earlier this year there were tragic cases similar to that of the CPF death pond which failed to capture the public's eye. Last January, four workers were reportedly found unconscious near a wastewater pond -- only two metres in width and three metres in depth -- at Soi Sai Mai in Bangkok, according to a PPTV report. In this accident, one worker died on the spot, while the remaining three were pronounced dead at hospital. In May, a worker from Myanmar died after he was sent to inspect a wastewater pond in a factory processing vinegar at The 304 Industrial Estate in Prachin Buri province.

Several years back, people suffocated in a wastewater pond at a pig farm in Ratchaburi province, while others died at a garbage dump in Kanchanaburi more than seven years ago. Myriad cases involving similar accidents go unreported to police, said an expert on chemical accidents at the Public Control Department who asked not to be named.

It seems death is so easy. Uninformed (or poorly informed) workers are sent to toil away near a fetid, filthy place, be it an enclosed wastewater treatment pond or a garbage dump filled with fermented materials emanating toxic gases. For them, these sites are simply the pits. After working there for a while, human noses gradually adapt to the stink, unwittingly growing used to toxic conditions. They do not know what those smells are and what will happen if they inhale those gases.

Maybe they don't know because nobody tells them. Perhaps the scientific jargon employed was only comprehensible to scientists and lecturers. Kept in the dark, they unwittingly walked right to their own deaths.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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