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Company director in Tuas fatal blast didn't see workplace as unsafe, told worker machine not dangerous to use

In the days leading up to a deadly explosion at a workshop in Tuas, a small fire broke out that was linked to a mixer machine. Even then, its company director had not thought that the machine was dangerous to operate.

Company director in Tuas fatal blast didn't see workplace as unsafe, told worker machine not dangerous to use

Mr Chua Xing Da, owner of Stars Engrg, at the State Courts on Sept 24, 2021.

  • Mr Chua Xing Da, Star Engrg’s boss, was questioned for a second day over an explosion that killed three workers
  • He said he would not have “risked his life” by visiting the workshop twice after a fire on Feb 12 if there was danger
  • One of the workers, now dead, told Mr Chua he was afraid to work at the site after the fire
  • Mr Chua persuaded him to do so but to wear a welding jacket and have a fire blanket on standby
  • He qualified by saying that the jacket was not to protect the worker from another fire but a means to calm him down 

 

SINGAPORE — In the days leading up to a deadly explosion at a workshop in Tuas, a small fire broke out that was linked to a mixer machine. Even then, its company director had not thought that the machine was dangerous to operate.

Mr Chua Xing Da, the sole director of Stars Engrg, which operates the workshop producing fire-rated insulation wrap, said that if he had felt this way, he would not have “risked his life” by personally visiting the workshop on Feb 17 and 20.

“(Would I have risked) my life for this? If, at that moment, I think this machine was not stable, definitely, I would stop (its use),” the 37-year-old said when addressing a state-appointed lawyer who was questioning him for a second day. 

The fire was on Feb 12, 12 days before the deadly blast. 

Mr Chua took the stand on Friday (Sept 24) as a fifth witness in public hearings held by an inquiry committee, to determine the circumstances leading to the blast at 32E Tuas Avenue 11, including whether obvious warnings from workers were ignored.

The hearings started on Monday, and this first tranche is expected to run until Oct 8.

The explosion, which happened at 11.22am on Feb 24, killed three workers who suffered 90 per cent burns: Subbaiyan Marimuthu, 38, from India, as well as Anisuzzaman Md, 29, and Shohel Md, 23, who were both from Bangladesh.

The impact of the blast was so great that portions of the walls at the workshop were blown off and two men who were working beyond its front shutters were thrown a distance of 2m. Seven other men were injured. 

At the centre of the investigation is the mixer machine, which was used to mix water, potato starch and other materials to make fire clay for the fire wrap.

After the explosion, the bulk of the damage to the machine was at the lower portion of the back of its oil jacket, which had ruptured open along its welding seams.

WORKER HESITANT TO GO TO SITE

The committee heard a day before that one of the deceased workers, Marimuthu, who supervised the production of fire wrap at the Tuas workshop from January, was concerned about working at the site after the small fire on Feb 12.

At 7.22pm, Marimuthu had sent a phone text message to Mr Lwin Moe Tun, an engineer overseeing production at the site, saying: “Better I no work”, “I very (scared)”, “Still I no see my baby”.

Marimuthu left behind a 10-month-old daughter whom he had not met at the point of his death.

When told of this, Mr Chua tried to placate Marimuthu that night by sending him a series of messages, including, “Actually this fire not come from the machine” and “You now thinking the machine very dangerous but actually no”.

The committee also heard that Mr Chua gave instructions three days later, on Feb 15, for Marimuthu to wear a welding jacket when operating the mixer machine to make fire clay and for a fire blanket to be on standby.

State Counsel Kristy Tan then put it to Mr Chua that he had recognised the risk of another fire occurring, but still did not order for production to halt, but Mr Chua disagreed.

He said that he had told Marimuthu to wear the welding jacket only because “we just want to calm his mental state… to make him feel safe”.

“That time, I did not think that there would be another fire,” he added.

State Counsel Tan did not buy that, saying he would not take those actions for the sake of doing them. “There is a purpose to the mitigation measures you were thinking of, I would hope,” she said.

Mr Chua replied that the intention was purely to calm Marimuthu’s mental state. “I really cannot agree (that I knew of the risk of another fire) because, at that moment, I did not think of this.”

PATCHING CRACKS ‘LIKE PLAYING WHACK-A-MOLE’

State Counsel Tan later suggested that Mr Chua did not give Marimuthu a true assessment of the situation because he was worried that the worker may refuse to work at the site. 

She also stated that Mr Chua’s attitude in the immediate aftermath of the Feb 12 fire was to ensure that production was not disrupted, since he had sent Mr Lwin Moe Tun messages telling him to ask Marimuthu to continue work and that they need to produce “44 rolls” of fire wrap by a certain day.

The lawyer went as far as to argue that Mr Chua had intended for workers to continue production despite another fire at the machine on Feb 24 morning — not long before the fatal blast.

This was because he had asked Marimuthu if he knew how to change the damaged heater.

She added that Marimuthu felt all the expectations on him to meet a production target of 32 fire wraps by the end of the day on Feb 24 and had thus “felt pressure to use (the machine) as is, rather than spending much more time to change the heater”.

Mr Chua disagreed and said that he had already resolved that the machine “cannot work”.

State Counsel Tan also pressed him on the hairline crack in the mixer machine that he knew of on Feb 13, saying he should have seen that as “a dangerous situation”.

Instead, the way he treated it, by ordering for the vulnerable parts to be welded, was “like playing whack-a-mole – crack, repair, crack again”, she said.

NOT CHECKING PRESSURE

Mr Chua’s assessment of workplace safety was called into question on another point: The pressure build-up in the mixer machine’s oil jacket.

He had decided to operate it as a “closed system”, instructing a worker to close all openings to prevent a loss of oil through evaporation. 

Mr Chua said he did that because the machine came with no pressure gauge, the oil was working below the recommended temperature from the oil supplier, and the oil was not squirting out when a leak was discovered, only dripping. 

State Counsel Tan did not accept his reasons and also played a video in court that showed a leak when it was discovered on Oct 12, in which hissing and crackling sounds could be heard as white smoke spurted out of a hole.

“Does that not suggest that oil is being sprayed out?” she asked.

Mr Chua insisted that the machine showed no signs of bulging or deformation from built-up pressure.

State Counsel Tan said: “If that’s seen, it would really be at an advanced, dangerous stage… That really should not be your guiding principle, to see a bulge, then check the pressure inside.”

Mr Chua will continue to be questioned next Monday.

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fire death Tuas migrant worker Committee of Inquiry workplace safety

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