The Bajhang tunnel mishap could have been avoidedQuestions need to be raised about whether safety protocols were strictly adhered to.
The death of four workers inside a tunnel at the construction site of a hydropower project in Bajhang has raised the possibility of gaps in safety procedures. The project operator and the Armed Police Force’s rescue team gave slightly differing accounts about what exactly caused the deaths. But what can be surmised is that the proper protocol was not followed.
The incident began on November 3 when a team of seven workers drove into the 1,600-metre-long tunnel. Their objective was to inspect the condition of the lights and oxygen supply before other workers would enter. When long tunnels are built, guaranteeing a supply of fresh air is essential. The tunnel may be too deep for air to circulate naturally, or the construction work can create large concentrations of toxic gas such as ammonia. In some cases, more likely in mines rather than hydropower tunnels, pockets of toxic gas trapped in the rocks may be released, which can cause a serious hazard. To ensure a fresh supply of breathable air, and to dispel any noxious gases, tunnel makers use tube and fan ventilation systems.
With the project restarting after a 35-day hiatus (due to the festival season) the workers who lost their lives had entered the tunnel to inspect the ventilation, to ensure safe and breathable conditions for the entire crew. The driver of the tractor that took the team in, one of the three to survive, recounted a horrifying tale. Apparently, he had dropped two workers 500 metres inside the tunnel and then ventured in about a kilometre to drop the other four. As he was turning the tractor around to go back out, he found it difficult to breathe. He turned to see that the four workers had already collapsed. The driver rushed out to the entrance in the tractor, picking up the other two workers on the way. They barely made it, apparently fainting at the mouth of the tunnel.
A joint team comprising of the police, Armed Police, army and local volunteers, carrying oxygen cylinders, attempted a rescue effort on November 3 itself, but they were unable to get to the workers. A special team from the Disaster Management Training Centre of the Armed Police Force in Kathmandu was brought in on Monday to retrieve the four. But they were already dead by then.
The project operator blamed the inspection team for not following protocol. Allegedly, the team only turned on the oxygen fans at the entrance, when they should also have turned on the fans attached to the ventilation system that were deeper inside the tunnel. The rescue team noted the presence of a high level of toxic gases inside the tunnel. They speculate that the accumulation resulted from the ventilation system being turned off for 35 days. The precise reason for the mishap will hopefully be found out following an investigation. But what is clear is that it could have been avoided.
Tunnelling creates a high-risk environment that is prone to accidents, injury and death. There have been numerous cases globally of workers being trapped inside tunnels due to dry landslides or collapses. But these cases are caused by unavoidable circumstances. In this case in Bajhang, proper safety procedures—checking the ventilation system and entering the tunnel more cautiously after being closed for such a long time—would have saved four lives. Questions need to be asked about whether a safety protocol was in place and whether its importance was drilled into the workers. A review of the safety protocol at high-risk construction sites, and its education and implementation across the workforce, is definitely in order.
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