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Death toll in Sulawesi nickel smelter explosion reaches 18, ignites safety concerns

The nickel smelter furnace tragedy at PT Tsingshan Stainless Steel (ITSS) in Morowali, Central Sulawesi now claims 18 lives.

This devastating event has triggered widespread criticism, highlighting negligence in safeguarding worker safety and infrastructure oversight, drawing condemnation towards the company and authorities.

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INDONESIA: A tragic incident at the nickel smelter furnace of PT Tsingshan Stainless Steel (ITSS) in Morowali, Central Sulawesi has led to a rise in the death toll by two, reaching a total of 18 casualties.

The additional victims succumbed to their injuries after receiving medical treatment at the hospital since Sunday (24 Dec), as confirmed by the Head of Morowali Police Resort, Commissioner Suprianto, on Tuesday.

The death toll from the explosion at the nickel smelter furnace of PT Tsingshan Stainless Steel (ITSS) in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, has risen by two people. (Photo: The Chairman of the Exco Labor Party Morowali Regency).

Commissioner Suprianto revealed that among the 18 fatalities, eight were foreign workers, while the remaining 10 were local employees.

The tragic event has triggered a comprehensive investigation by the police, in collaboration with the National Police Forensic Laboratory team.

Additionally, the Central Sulawesi Police’s Bomb Disposal Unit (Jibom) was deployed to the scene to detect explosive materials and hazardous chemicals.

Contrary to initial fears, the Head of Public Relations of the Central Sulawesi Police, Commissioner Djoko Wienarno, stated on Tuesday that no explosive materials or dangerous chemicals were found during the investigation.

As investigations continue, a joint team of the National Police, the Forensic Laboratory in Makassar, and the Health and Occupational Safety Unit of the Central Sulawesi Regional Police are interviewing 14 witnesses who are employees of PT ITSS.

Commissioner Djoko emphasized that, as of now, there are no suspects, and conclusions will be drawn upon the completion of the investigation.

Tragedy sparks outcry over worker safety

The tragedy has ignited a wave of criticism against Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park (IMIP), with the Solidarity of IMIP Morowali Workers issuing an official statement condemning the company and the state for negligence in ensuring safety and security infrastructure for workers.

The solidarity of IMIP Morowali Workers, a coalition of national labour unions and non-governmental organizations focused on labour issues, accused PT IMIP of engaging in labour practices that violate regulations.

Allegations include acting as labour brokers by placing job applicants in other companies under PT IMIP, relocating workers without consent, and implementing contractual work relationships.

The group asserted that smelter companies such as PT ITSS and PT IMIP, as structural managers of industrial areas, have turned a blind eye to substandard work safety practices, neglecting the rights of workers regarding Health and Safety at Work (K3).

Furthermore, the Solidarity of IMIP Morowali Workers claimed that the IMIP area lacks adequate safety infrastructure.

This was evidenced by victims being trapped in the flames due to the absence of evacuation routes.

Some workers resorted to jumping from the third floor, resulting in serious bone fractures and even vomiting blood.

Adding to the chorus of concern, the Indonesian Trade Union Association (ASPEK) President, Mirah Sumirat, characterized the PT ITSS workplace accident as a “human tragedy” requiring serious attention from the government.

Mirah strongly suspected violations of K3 regulations at PT ITSS, leading to the smelter furnace explosion.

Mirah urged legal action against the leaders of PT ITSS and the temporary closure of the company to facilitate a thorough investigation.

She also raised concerns about weak supervision of K3 implementation in Indonesia, attributing it to the ease of investment promoted by the Omnibus Law on Job Creation.

Addressing systemic issues, Mirah emphasized the classic problem of weak supervision and a shortage of labour inspectors, stating that these issues have persistently eluded resolution by the government.

Environmental advocacy group Indonesian Environmental Forum (WALHI) called on the government to impose sanctions on PT IMIP, demanding an immediate halt to the factory’s operations.

They stressed that the government’s focus on the nickel downstream industry should not overshadow the grim reality on the ground, where lives are lost and people suffer due to chaotic and disorganized industrial zones.

Aulia Hakim, Head of Advocacy and Campaigns at Central Sulawesi’s Indonesian Environmental Forum (WALHI), underscored the urgency of the situation and invoked the provisions of Law No. 3 of 2020 on Mineral and Coal Mining.

According to Article 113 of the law, the suspension of mining activities can be imposed in the event of unforeseen circumstances, including natural disasters and human-made calamities.

Meanwhile, Mulyanto, a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives Commission VII, urged the government to take decisive action.

He called for a temporary halt (moratorium) on all operations of Chinese smelter companies in Indonesia and emphasized the need for a rigorous audit of all smelters, citing frequent workplace accidents resulting in fatalities.

Mulyanto insisted that audits must be conducted professionally, objectively, and comprehensively, focusing on safety and workplace security.

He cautioned against political considerations that might compromise the government’s commitment to ensuring the safety of workers in these companies.

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