A Hong Kong contractor has been arrested in connection with two deaths suspected to have been caused by a gas leak at an underground construction site, and may face manslaughter charges, the security minister has said.

Secretary for Security Chris Tang
Secretary for Security Chris Tang meets the press on September 27, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

A 62-year-old contractor was arrested under the city’s occupational safety legislation after two workers – aged 61 and 63 – were found unconscious inside a water cooling pipe connected to the air-conditioning system at Elements mall in West Kowloon on Sunday. They were later pronounced dead at Queen Elizabeth Hospital and were suspected of having inhaled toxic gas.

“For the time being, we arrested him for [occupational safety and health] related offences. But actually we are actively investigating the case and we will not rule out the possibility that we will further arrest him on other offences including manslaughter,” Secretary for Security Chris Tang told the press on Wednesday morning after a Fight Crime Committee meeting.

The announcement of the contractor’s arrest came hours after Secretary for Labour and Welfare Chris Sun vowed said on RTHK that local authorities would hold the contractor and subcontractors accountable if occupational safety laws had been breached.

The site supervisor, contractor and frontline project manager were all responsible for determining whether the construction site at West Kowloon – managed by the city’s sole rail operator the MTR Corporation, was an enclosed space, Sun said.

The Labour Department has a specific Code of Practice for work carried out in confined spaces, defined as “any place in which, by virtue of its enclosed nature, there arises a reasonably foreseeable specified risk, and without limiting the generality of the foregoing.”

Firefighters and rescuers recover the two workers from the cooling pipe on Sunday morning. Photo: Internet.
Firefighters and rescuers recover the two workers from the cooling pipe on Sunday morning. Photo: Internet.

A flammable, explosive, or oxygen enriched atmosphere; a toxic atmosphere; and excessive heat were named as some of the elements which could lead to major hazards when working in an enclosed space.

According to the Labour Department, workers in a confined space face threats such as serious injury stemming from a fire or explosion, loss of consciousness from a rise in body temperate under a heat stress environment and asphyxiation arising from gas, fumes, vapour or a lack of oxygen.

While existing laws allowed contractors in the construction industry to outsource work to other entities, they remain legally liable for ensuring the workplace was safe, the official said.

“I understand some people are concerned that there is a subcontractor system in the construction industry and whether the lead contractor would outsource their responsibility,“ Sun said on the Cantonese radio programme.

“This won’t happen. Of course, under occupational legislations, subcontracting is allowed. But we will hold the lead contractor liable for the legal responsibility of ensuring workers’ safety,” he added.

Sun said on Tuesday that there was no evidence to suggest a full risk assessment had been conducted by qualified personnel. A required form was also not on display at the site, he said.

Asked by the programme host why no one noticed the workers had not left work on Saturday evening, Sun said further investigation had to be conducted by both the Labour Department and the police in order to understand the details and causes of the incident.

Chris Sun
Secretary for Labour and Welfare Chris Sun. File photo: GovHK.

Hong Kong made amendments to the Occupational Safety and Occupational Health Legislation Ordinance in April, including raising the maximum penalty for employers who commit serious occupation safety violations from HK$500,000 to HK$10 million. They could also face up to two years of imprisonment.

The significant increase in penalty aimed to give a clear signal that people had to attach more importance to occupational safety, the labour minister said. If there was evidence pointing to non-compliance in the suspected gas leak deaths, the government would discuss with the Department of Justice and “seriously consider” invoking the new penalty to hold the employer accountable, he said.

He added the authorities would consider whether mandatory reports should be implemented to enhance workers’ safety when working in an enclosed space.

On Tuesday, the Development Bureau suspended the contractor involved – identified in local reports as Raft (E&M) Engineering Limited – from tendering for government air-conditioning installation contracts. The company will also have to withdraw existing bids, the bureau ordered.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.