Sheema Oxygen blast probe finds ‘poor management’, ‘lack of skilled manpower’

The probe committee finds out that the blast originated in the oxygen separation unit

Published : 14 March 2023, 08:01 PM
Updated : 14 March 2023, 08:01 PM

The panel investigating the deadly blast at Sheema Oxygen Limited in Sitakunda has marked poor management as a cause for the catastrophe while mentioning a lack of skilled manpower in the probe report.

The committee also identified the plant’s oxygen separation unit as the epicentre of the deadly blast and came up with nine recommendations to avoid such a disaster in future.

Chattogram District Administration said some of these suggestions were already put in motion.

On Mar 4, a horrific blast tore through the facility, leaving at least seven people dead and around 25 others injured. The explosion was so intense that it blew cylinders and metal debris hundreds of metres away.

In the wake of the incident, a seven-strong inquiry committee was formed with a mandate to submit its findings within five days. Additional Magistrate Rakib Hasan headed the committee.

The committee then asked for a two-day extension for the submission of the report and delivered it to the deputy commissioner on Tuesday.

Deputy Commissioner Abul Bashar Md Fakhruzzaman and Rakib did not reveal any details about the findings on the cause of the explosion or the way forward while handing over the report.

Asking not to be named, several members of the probe committee mentioned that the oxygen separation unit was the source of the blast.

“The blast was so intense that the shockwave was felt from far away,” one of them said.

In an initial reaction while visiting the site the day after the incident, Rakib did mention the air separation column as a probable source of the blast.

A member of the committee, who did not want to be named, on Tuesday said: “The plant did not have skilled and capable manpower to run the place. The plant has not been regularly maintained since its establishment. So the issue with the separation unit was not apparent before.”

Following the blast, Mina Masud Uzzaman, additional inspector general of Department of Inspection Factories and Establishment, said Sheema Oxygen Ltd was once handed a notice after issues emerged in an assessment.

The plant that exploded in the 1996 factory was activated in 2017, according to the factory’s Managing Director Md Mamun Uddin. The plant produced oxygen for use in the industrial sector and supplied it in cylinders.

Oxygen for use in the industrial sector is produced in several steps, according to officials.

Air is initially passed into the compressor which separates nitrogen through chemical reaction. It is pumped into cylinders once oxygen levels reach 99 percent.

According to another member of the investigation committee, the oxygen separation unit entirely collapsed due to the explosion.

“As we know, oxygen alone is not flammable, but it can catalyse combustion of other materials. The explosion might have been caused by a spark resulting from a potential leak in the oxygen separation unit that allowed hydrocarbons to come into contact at an elevated temperature as the temperature was high around 3pm to 4pm.”

The investigation committee member speaking on condition of anonymity said that the lack of technical personnel in the factory led to poor maintenance of the plant for a long time. Consequently, the leakage in the processor went unnoticed, he added.

“The oxygen separation plant has a safety valve and an alarm system. Leakage was not detected due to lack of regular testing.”

Two diploma engineers and a supervisor who studied humanities ran the Sitakunda oxygen plant, while its air separation column operator was absent during the deadly blast, according to Sheema Group Managing Director Mamun Uddin.

Chinese engineers installed the plant after Sheema Group imported the machines from China, and the engineers stayed back for three months until the commissioning of the plant and the beginning of production, Mamun said. The engineers stayed in Bangladesh for two more months to train the Bangladeshi operators.

Government agency representatives revealed that the oxygen plant lacked a fire safety plan and environmental clearance. Additionally, the factory possessed unauthorised carbon dioxide and nitrogen cylinders.

Referring to the report, he said that the investigation committee visited the site multiple times and prepared the report after analysing the technical details.

The report will be forwarded to the ministry and other government offices. Once it is approved, the panel's findings will be shared with the media, he said.

The investigation committee head Rakib told reporters: "This is the first instance of an explosion in an oxygen plant in Bangladesh. Moreover, there have been only four or five such cases worldwide in the last decade. Such blasts are extremely rare."

"When the work (investigation) started we had a mindset. We learnt a lot of new things while going in-depth during the investigation.”

In addition to investigating the cause of the blast, the 8-page investigation report has outlined nine recommendations, said Rakib.

The district administration is already executing the recommendations that are within their jurisdiction, he said.

Following the incident at Sheema Oxygen Ltd, work has begun on implementing the Master Plan for Heavy and Medium Industries, said Fakhruzzaman.

Plans are also under way to create a manual for the oxygen plant in Chattogram, with the support of a large organisation that has a good compliance record, he said.

“We have organised workshops for representatives from all oxygen plants, with two to three attendees from each plant. The workshops aim to provide training in all topics, including the types of manpower required and their respective roles at each stage of the process.”

[Writing in English by Arshi Fatiha Quazi and Syed Mahmud Onindo]