The families of two local workers who were killed on Sunday in a suspected sewer gas leak at an underground site managed by the MTR Corporation (MTRC) have accused the contractor of negligence.
Police and firefighters received a report at 7:30 am on Sunday morning and recovered the victims – surnamed Lau, 63, and Kwok, 61 – from the underground pipe. They took them to Queen Elizabeth Hospital where they were pronounced dead.
Chief Secretary for Administration Eric Chan, speaking to reporters on Monday, said the police will conduct an investigation into potential criminal elements and negligence.
“There is no evidence showing that the contractor had complied with legal requirements,” Chan said. Those requirements include risk assessments, appropriate training, and suitable protective equipment.
Chan added that the Social Welfare Department would provide assistance, while the Labour Department will conduct an investigation considering occupational safety.
Six metres underground
The MTRC said the victims were working on a water cooling pipe connected to the air-conditioning system at Elements mall in West Kowloon, which the rail operator owns.
The rail giant vowed to assist in investigations and provide HK$100,000 to the families of each of the victims, while the contractors involved would jointly pay each family HK$200,000, local media reported.
In a statement on Sunday, the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims expressed its condolences, calling the incident “outrageous.”
Citing the Occupational Safety and Health Council’s regulations on working in confined spaces, the association said workers should maintain communication with staff in such spaces. Also, such areas should be adequately ventilated.
Firefighters told reporters that the two were found in a cooling pipe that measured 200-metres in length. They were found six metres below ground level, between the 100 and 200-metre mark. Rescuers also had to pump hydrogen sulphide gas out of the pipe.
The association’s chief executive Fay Siu said on an RTHK program on Monday that the worksite did not keep a record of the people working in confined spaces, suggesting loopholes in the contractor’s safety management. She also said it took hours for the contractor to contact the victims’ families, after they were pronounced dead.
Kwok’s widow said she made many unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with her husband’s boss when he failed to come home on Saturday night.
She told reporters at the hospital that her husband had decided to keep working – despite the fact their children had now entered the workforce – as it would help ease the strain on the family’s finances. “I bought mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival, but that’s just a dream now,” she said in Cantonese.
Lau’s son told reporters in Cantonese that his father had worked in the construction sector for some 40 years. He accused the contractor of negligence, asking: “Shouldn’t there have been someone monitoring the situation when workers were in confined spaces? How did nobody notice that two people didn’t get off work? Where was the supervisor?”
A spate of workplace incidents, some fatal, have put a spotlight on industrial safety in recent years. Labour rights groups have long said the fines faced by employers were insufficient for reflecting the severity of the offences and deterring offenders.
Safety equipment essential
Lee Kwong-sing, a safety advisor at the Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union, told local media that workers have to complete a course approved by the authorities before they can work in confined spaces. Risk assessments must also be conducted for the space itself to check for fire and explosion hazards, heatstroke risks, and hazardous gases including hydrogen sulphide.
He also said workers are required by law to wear oxygen tanks and safety harnesses held by workers above ground to assist in a potential evacuation, and motion detectors equipped with alarms that go off when movement is not detected for more than 20 seconds.
Former president of the Hong Kong Institute of Utility Specialists Wong King told local media that the incident might have been related to leaks from damaged pipes nearby, which caused the sewer gas to accumulate within the cooling pipe.
He also said underground workers must carry gas detection alarms and must evacuate immediately if the concentration of toxic gas exceeds the legal limit.
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