SINGAPORE —A Bangladeshi worker was not at the site of a deadly blast in February only because his boss was unhappy with his performance and had deployed him to other work sites, a public inquiry into an incident that killed three migrant workers was told on Monday (20 September).
Instead, Imam's role at the Stars Engrg workshop was taken by his compatriot Anis, 29, who was one of the three workers killed. "Anis and I are from the same district in Bangladesh and we were very close," the 34-year-old told the inquiry committee (IC).
He recalled that he had angered his boss Chua Xing Da, the owner of Stars, in October 2020, as he and three others workers had failed to produce the requested number of rolls of fire-rated insulation wrap on time. Following a similar incident months later, he was permanently deployed to work at project sites in January 2021.
The explosion occurred on 24 February this year at the workshop, located at Platinum@Pioneer industrial building at 32E Tuas Avenue 11. Seven other migrant workers were injured, with the last injured worker discharged from hospital in June.
On the day of the incident, Imam was working at another project site near Dhoby Ghaut.
Preliminary investigations indicate that the blast was caused by a combustible dust explosion. The dust was in the form of potato starch powder, a material used for production by Stars.
The company is a fire protection contractor and provides design-built fire protection systems. Stars sometimes uses a fire-rated insulation wrap called Shield+, which it manufactures itself.
Before proceedings began, a minute’s silence was observed in memory of the three deceased workers: Anis; Marimuthu, 38, from India; and Shohel, 23, from Bangladesh.
Extent of the blast
On 24 February, a total of eight workers were present at the three-storey Stars workshop, which produced Shield+. A key component of the wrap was a fire clay material, which the workers made using an industrial kneader or mixer machine. The ingredients included potato starch, boric acid and silicon oil.
The mixture was placed in a mixing compartment and heated by an oil jacket filled with thermic oil to make the clay. The clay would then be wrapped with other materials to assemble the finished fire wrap product.
At around 8.39am that morning, a small fire broke out at heater No. 2 on the mixer machine, which was put out with a fire extinguisher. Witnesses will testify before the IC that, shortly before the explosion occurred, they heard the sound of the machine in operation.
CCTV footage from the day indicates that a large explosion first occurred at around 11.22am, followed in the next few minutes by flash fires.
The IC was told that the force of the blast caused one worker to "fly" about 2m, while others felt "intense heat" or were splashed with hot oil.
All eight Stars workers present were badly injured. Two workers from adjoining units suffered relatively light injuries. Anis, Marimuthu and Shohel suffered burns to approximately 90 per cent of their total body surface area and succumbed to their wounds, while the other five workers also sustained serious burns.
Meanwhile, the rear wall of the workshop collapsed, causing debris to be scattered around the back lane of the workshop. Much of the equipment in the workshop was also damaged, and a portion of the workshop's side wall collapsed.
Four rear window panels were blasted out of their frames.
Were there red flags?
In her opening statement, State Counsel Kristy Tan noted that, in the months before the blast, there was a series of notable events involving burned/damaged heaters, leaks from the oil jacket, smoke emitting from the bottom of the oil jacket and fires at the mixer machine.
Numerous repairs were carried out, such as replacing worn out gaskets, welding a base plate to the underside of the machine and installing insulation on the oil jacket. In this regard, videos, voice messages and texts exchanged between Chua Xing Da, the owner of Stars Engrg, and his workers were shown in court.
"Were there red flags, right up to the morning of 24 February 2021, indicating that continued operation of the mixer machine as Stars was doing, posed huge risk to the safety of the workers?" said Tan.
Two tranches of hearings
A total of 15 witnesses, comprising workers, supervisors and managers, will be heard. Investigators from the Singapore Civil Defence Force's Fire Investigation Unit, as well the Ministry of Manpower, will also testify.
The IC is chaired by Senior District Judge Ong Hian Sun. He is assisted by Lucas Ng, general manager of the plant at Petrochemical Corporation of Singapore, and Dr Peter Nagler, chief innovation officer at A*Star. It was appointed by former Manpower Minister Josephine Teo in March.
Its role is to inquire into and ascertain the causes and circumstances of the accident. It will also determine if criminal proceedings should be initiated against any individuals.
The public can attend the hearings from 10am to 5pm at Court 8A of the State Courts on the following days: 20 to 24 September, 27 September to 1 October, and 4 to 8 October. However, court capacity is limited due to safe management measures, and dates and timings may change.
MOM said that a second tranche of public hearings will be held from 15 to 19 November to review recommendations to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.
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