Factory blaze a wake-up call
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Factory blaze a wake-up call

As of press time yesterday, a massive blaze which began early yesterday morning at a plastic factory in Samut Prakan finally showed some sign of easing up. The fire was certainly not an ordinary incident, as hundreds of thousands litres of hazardous chemicals -- most of which were the carcinogenic, styrene monomers -- went up in smoke, causing severe air pollution.

So far, the inferno has claimed the life of a volunteer rescue worker, Kornsith Laophan, 18 and rendered dozens of others needing treatment after inhaling toxic smoke.

Authorities will need to do more than provide short-term medical treatment for rescue workers and those injured by the fire. They will need to launch a monitoring campaign to track the long-term impact of the incident, both on the health of rescue workers and local residents in the area, as well as on the environment -- especially since toxic chemicals from the factory have contaminated the air, soil and water resources.

Once the fire is brought under control, the government, in particular the Department of Factories under Industry Ministry, will need to reexamine firefighting and prevention capacities of all factories across the country. As the agency which issues permits and operating licences for factories nationwide, the department owes the public a detailed explanation.

The firefighting and rescue operation yesterday were shockingly ill-equipped and inadequate. After the explosion was reported around 3.10am yesterday, about 30 firetrucks from the local administration, aided by brave volunteer rescue workers, rushed to the scene. However, a fire of such scale was simply too much for them to handle, and without adequate protective gear and special chemical fire-retardant foam, the overall operation was sluggish.

There were no experts and no special chemical incident team at the scene to run the show, and it was truly shocking and disheartening to see volunteer rescuers without protective gears desperately dousing water on the chemical fire. Volunteers in T-shirts ran the firefighting operation, so many rescue workers suffered skin irritation and breathing difficulties. It wasn't until about 10 hours later that Samut Prakan authorities finally asked for fire-retardant foam from Bangkok and the central government. Apparently, Samut Prakan authorities, in particular, Bang Phli local administration, do not have the capacity to deal with chemical accidents -- a shocking fact considering the province is known as a major industrial zone.

When, and how often, did Industry Ministry officials check the factory's -- as well as other factories in the area -- safety standards before the incident occurred? And has the ministry and local administration prepared adequate safety protocols for local communities to follow to ensure their safety in the case of accidents? Yesterday's inferno certainly answered those questions.

The alarming fact is that there are hundreds of similar factories which are located next to populated areas. Over the past years, the number of complaints from concerned residents has spiked, without much response from the government.

It is about time for authorities, especially the Industry Ministry, to take safety more seriously. Both the local and central government need to be stricter in enforcing land zoning laws which mandates a buffer zone between factories and communities. The ministry must work harder and dedicate more resources to safety inspections, and local communities, especially fire rescue units, must be given adequate resources so similar incidents won't happen again in the future.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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