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Production of fireworks sparks safety concerns

Updated: 2011-01-24 07:15
By Duan Yan ( China Daily)

Industry remains plagued by accidents despite greater use of technology. Duan Yan reports from Hunan.

Production of fireworks sparks safety concerns

A worker assembles fireworks at a workshop in Liuyang, Hunan province, in this file photo taken on Dec 10, 2010. [Photo/China Daily]

Wen Yuehui's hands were like pistons as she fitted fuses into bunch after bunch of firecrackers. On a freezing Sunday afternoon in a small building with no doors, the furious repetition was the only thing keeping her warm.

The 50-year-old has been making fireworks to earn extra cash for decades; only now instead of working alone in her home, she toils alongside dozens of others at Feilong Firecracker Factory in Yizhang county, Hunan province.

Government safety crackdowns throughout the county have all but wiped out the once-ubiquitous family workshops, forcing 40,000 farmers to find post-harvest jobs with registered and, more importantly, regulated businesses.

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The result has been a sharp drop in the number of fireworks-related deaths. Official data shows that 188 people were killed in explosions in 2009, compared to the annual average of 400 between 1986 and 2005.

China is already the world's largest producer, consumer and exporter of fireworks, with a total output in 2010 topping 28 billion yuan ($4.2 billion). Yet, with the industry growing at 10 to 15 percent a year, experts warn that technology now being used by factories nationwide to increase productivity and reduce the reliance on manual workers is potentially creating new dangers.

On Nov 15 last year, one person was killed and two injured when a machine being used without the proper safety certificates exploded at a plant in Baitutan town, Liling city, also in Hunan. Two more died in a similar accident several weeks later in nearby Pukou town.

Wen earns 90 jiao ($0.13) for every 800 fuses she fits and, at peak times like the run-up to the Lunar New Year, can earn about 800 yuan a month. For decades, workers like her have been the backbone of the industry. However, as more young people migrate to cities for better salaries, fireworks manufacturers are investing in technology to protect their profits in the face of labor shortages.

Feilong recently spent 540,000 yuan to install six machines that automatically knit firecrackers. Running at full speed, each one can do the work of six or seven people.

Such technology is making production quicker, but not necessarily safer, according to Li Guoyu, a senior engineer with Yizhang county's work safety administration. He warned that some factories are even modifying machines to run faster. "That's far more dangerous than making firecrackers by hand".

In Liuyang, another major fireworks production base in Hunan, the labor shortage is even more acute. The industry there needs more than 300,000 workers, yet recruitment is proving difficult.

"We went to Sichuan (province in Southwest China) with the idea of hiring more than 4,000 migrant workers for our factories. In the end, we got only 1,600," said Hu Jianjun, deputy director of the city's fireworks and firecrackers administration bureau. "Those who did come, many of them didn't want to stay in Liuyang for long.

"The fireworks industry has always relied heavily on human labor, and mechanized production is growing at a very slow pace," he said, adding that some large companies are working with engineers to develop new technologies.

Production of fireworks sparks safety concerns

A worker fits fuses into firecrackers on Dec 9 at a small factory in Liuyang, one of the major fireworks production bases in Hunan province. Authorities are trying to make the industry safer. [Photo/China Daily]

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