Cairo, Egypt, Dec, 2014
Al-Watan – Student Isra’a and Shaker long for their father’s usual morning kiss on their forehead before they go to school and he leaves for his high-risk job at a power plant that is careless about implementing industrial safety measures. The affectionate touch of their father, Rajy Mohammad, remains with the two children until they see him in the evening. One day in late August 2012, the children waited and waited.
Days and nights passed until they found out that he was in the hospital after sustaining work injuries. He was part of a team tasked with connecting an electric cable to a high voltage rig at at El-Kureimat Power Plant.
For Rajy, this was a routine job since his employment at the plant 16 years ago. But this time, the cable fell on a nearby electrical transformer, causing a short circuit, followed by a horrifying explosion and fire. Ten days after he was admitted to hospital he asked to see his two kids.
Isra’a and Shaker rushed towards his hospital room only to get the shock of their lives upon seeing the man in bed covered with layers of ointment. The puzzled children stood there motionless, their eyes filled with so many questions. Their father gave them one long final look before he took his last breath.
That was in September 2012. This was not the first tragedy and will not likely be the last due to negligence and careless implementation of industrial safety measures which have become mere cosmetics moves in the country’s power plants.
The power stations have turned into virtual “death traps” amid hazardous networks, connections, and equipment, posing serious risks to the safety of 70,000 employees of the Egyptian Electricity Holding Company.
In this investigative report, Al-Watan newspaper exposes how failure to implement industrial safety procedures in these plants appears systematic; though enough to prompt the concerned supervisory, monitoring, and government authorities to both ensure that these procedures are applied and protective gear is available.
Mohammad Abu Shanab, head of the labor force at El-Kureimat plant, run by the Upper Egypt Electricity Production Company (UEEPC), recalls the tragedy of August 29, 2012.
He says: “If industrial safety existed, they would have raised hell”. Police and medical reports showed that the fire caused by the accident killed Engineer Mohammad al-Hawary and IT technician Rajy Mohammad. Four other workers were injured and material losses were estimated at EGP 200,000 (approximately $28,100), according to company officials.
Regulations require written operation orders specifying the tasks and procedures that should be implemented. The written order form must be endorsed by the industrial safety officers because of the hazardous risks involved. But the El-Kureimat accident operation order, of which Al-Watan obtained a copy, excluded the signature of the plant’s industrial safety officers.
The Director of Operations at the company’s power stations decided in a meeting on November 16, 2008 that maintenance orders must include the name and number of the unit, generator and technical insulation steps, with the knowledge of the maintenance engineer and endorsement of the maintenance general manager.
The maintenance engineer proceeds with needed steps to issue an operation order, review the insulation measures, and supply the engineer on-duty and the industrial safety engineer with the required equipment as well as any additional remarks.
The directors also agreed that no work at the stations may commence unless the operation order includes the signatures of those charged with the protection of workers using the equipment. But Al-Watan obtained a copy of Operation Order 4133 related to the El-Kureimat accident which shows that the instructions issued by the operation directors in 2008 were not fulfilled.
The order form lacked the signature of the concerned maintenance general manager, Hany Mohammad Ali, as well as the industrial safety officer. Furthermore, it did not specify the insulation steps and tools that were to be used by the workers.
Al-Watan also found that operation orders issued throughout the month preceding the accident also lacked the signature of the industrial safety officer and did not specify the insulation steps, revealing continuous negligence.
A senior occupational safety official at the holding company says that the penalties for failing to sign an operation order include deducting three to 10 days from the responsible employee’s salary. But Al-Watan discovered that Engineer Hany Mohammad Ali, who did not sign the order form, was actually promoted to general manager of maintenance in the IT division where the accident took place.
In addition, his contract was renewed in July 2014, although he faced three other violation penalties as manager of the IT department in 2010. Meanwhile, Fathy Mohammad Abdel Hady, head of the systems and communications department and mastermind of the idea to link the cables that led to the death of two and injury of four others, was promoted to president of the Assiut power station, which generates 600 megawatts.
He was promoted more recently to vice president of UEEPC, which operates El-Kureimat plant. “So what if two died?” Upon going to interview him at El-Kureimat plant, Engineer Hany Mohammad Ali gave this reporter a cool reception and refused to be interviewed.
He also prevented interviews with the workers injured in the accident. He described the accident as “normal” and commented: “So what if two died?” He described the relationship between the injured and the company like a “father-son relationship, in which a journalist cannot interfere.
” One worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that the industrial safety officers always blame the workers for every accident, although “carelessness comes from the division presidents and board directors, who don’t care about operation orders and don’t regularly review them in order to rush the operations.” The source adds: “If they cared about industrial safety, they would be fired because operations will slow down, something which the leadership does not like.
” This indicates increasing carelessness in implementing safety measures amid growing pressure on the electricity sector over repeated power cuts across the country. The source says that several engineers and technicians working in the field have no protective clothing.
This is in violation of occupational safety requirements stipulated in Labor Law 12 of 2003. Meanwhile, a senior occupational health and safety official at the UEEPC says that protective equipment” did its part in the El-Kureimat accident and automatically disconnected the transformer.
Otherwise, the situation would have been worse.” Speaking on condition of anonymity, he explains that the “transformer is an old uncovered model.” He adds that “when the country’s turmoil settles down, we will replace such transformers” with ones insulated by inert sulfur hexafluoride gas, which prevents transformers from repeatedly blowing up.
The official says that advanced technology has a price that people have to pay, adding that plants with a capacity of more than 220 megawatts must include transformers containing cooling hydrogen gas. To prevent hydrogen gas from leaking, industrial safety officers create an “oil insulation cycle,” which provides higher pressure than hydrogen and keeps it confined to its specified course. But when there is a leak or blockage in the insulation cycle modules, or other such risks, hydrogen moves away from its course and interacts with other components in the air, which leads to massive explosions and fires as happened in El-Tibeen station on 27 October 2012.
The official indicated that this obsolete technology was removed from the new power plant contracts in Egypt, such as the El-Ain el-Sokhna and South Helwan plants. The official continues to say: “No one can deny human negligence, especially in terms of occupational health and safety.” He also acknowledges “the weak capabilities of occupational protection officers supervising industrial safety, while industrial safety measures are expensive for profit-seeking companies as they cut spending from the safety budget, which is, of course, a big mistake.
” The official suggests that “industrial safety management must be ready with emergency plans entailing automatic fire extinguishers, in addition to the usual prevention plans to ensure the installation’s general readiness through functional early alarm systems on the fuel tanks.”
He also cites “full preparation with manual fire extinguishers and regular supervision to ensure there is no inflammable material or waste that could fuel the fires, such as wooden boxes left behind by maintenance or installation work.”
This reporter saw first-hand how workers in the stations do not bother wearing protective helmets while working with equipment in some hazardous zones, not to mention the absence of supervision by industrial safety officers. Commenting on missing signatures and tasks in the operation order related to the El-Kureimat accident, Engineer Gaber Dusouky Mustafa, president of the Egyptian Electricity Holding Company, which comprises 16 companies — six power generators, nine distributors, and one carrier — says: “Inquiries are still ongoing and there will be no lenience.” He confirms that “the operation order must include all the signatures in order to commence work.” Mustafa does not deny “carelessness” by workers when there are many operation orders.
He says that inquires are being held “at the highest level and there will be deterrent penalties and accountability of those responsible, regardless of their rank.” Since August 20, Mustafa refused to answer repeated calls and text messages for his follow-up comments on the results of the inquiry.
The health and safety official at the company says that the penalties imposed after the conclusion of the inquiry comprised deducting one to three days from the salaries of officers who failed to apply industrial safety procedures. President of the sector, Engineer Hany Ali, was not among those penalized.
The official indicated that the penalties were for the failure of workers to wear the necessary protective clothes. On the El-Tibeen plant accident near Helwan in October 2012, which incurred a loss of nearly EGP 500,000 Mustafa says that it was “technically unprecedented in the 30 year history of the company”. He adds that “unexpected consequences occurred with a fire that damaged the turbine, making it difficult to control.
” Thus, Mustafa continues to say, consultants, the producing company and expert technicians in the ministry are studying the causes of this accident. He denies that “industrial safety officers showed negligence in dealing with this accident” insisting that “efforts to extinguish the fire were done according to international standards.” Mustafa argues that the Talkha power plant fire in Dakahlia in October 2012 was originally caused by human error when a worker incorrectly opened a filter to change the oil.
The head of the division and the responsible manager, in addition to the worker, were transferred as a result. Mustafa adds that “other reform measures” are being taken at the Talkha plant and other stations where accidents occurred. He says that 25 percent of staff members at the ministry take compulsory annual courses in occupational health and safety. There are approximately 70,000 employees, including administrators, in the Egyptian Electricity Holding Company.
Regardless of the penalties issued for the accidents, taking preventive measures remains the priority to avoid wasting more life so that children like Isra’a and Shaker do not lose their father’s affection for good.
* This investigation was conducted with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) www.arij.net.