A century-old law lacking measures to ensure safe use of boilers increases the risk of fatal explosions at the country's growing industrial hub of Gazipur.
The Boilers Act-1923 carries only a Tk10,000 fine for using an industrial boiler, without complying with necessary precautionary measures.
Owing to the legal limitations, in the case of a deadly boiler explosion, no major action can be taken against the factory authorities.
In addition, the country has no separate institute for training boiler inspectors and operators.
In July 2017, 13 workers were killed and more than 50 were injured in a boiler explosion at Multifabs Ltd, a garment factory, in Kashimpur, Gazipur.
The death toll was comparatively lower as the factory was partially operational that day. Had the entire factory been in operation, the number of casualties could have been much higher.
Following the accident, it was found that the boiler had already gone beyond its expiry date.
Additionally, in September 2016, 31 people were killed in an explosion at a packaging factory, named Tampaco, in Tongi. Hundreds of workers were also injured and a part of the factory was badly damaged. It was assumed that a boiler explosion had caused the accident.
An investigation by the district administration had revealed that the pressure gauge of the boiler had been damaged, supervision was not proper and permission was not sought from the maintenance engineer concerned to start it. Operators failed to release pressure as they lacked efficiency.
Despite the loss of so many lives, it was not possible to bring the factory owners under any major fine or punishment due to legal limitations.
According to people concerned, various activities such as renewal and installation of boilers and punishment over explosions are being carried out under the century-old law.
Section 23 of the law states that if an owner uses a boiler without a certificate or order or at a pressure higher than the permitted level, he may be fined a sum that is not more than Tk10,000.
A boiler is an essential tool for every industry. Its use in power plants, government factories, sugar, textile, feed, and auto rice mills and the pharmaceutical industry is significant.
But this is a very risky device. If it explodes for any reason or if an accident occurs, there is a huge loss of lives and property. Therefore, to ensure the safe operation of boilers, their inspection, installation, renewal and fines are regulated through the offices established in different districts through the office of the Chief Inspector of Boilers as set up by the ministry of industries.
After the Gazipur accident in 2017, the office of the Deputy Chief Inspector of Boilers was set up in January this year in this industrial district. This has made boiler inspection much easier. Earlier, stakeholders had to go to the head office in the capital's Motijheel and do all the work. On the other hand, the inspectors also used to come from Dhaka to visit factories.
The Deputy Chief Inspector of Boilers, Engineer Pranab Kumar Sarkar, said there are 3,150 boilers at different factories in Gazipur. Of the boilers, 927 are currently inoperative due to the breakdown of many boilers and the closure of many factories during the coronavirus pandemic.
He said at present there are nine inspectors in his office, who inspect boilers at different factories at the field level every day.
He added that the boiler inspection office has five basic jobs – issuance of clearance or no-objection certificates (NOC) after verification of drawings and designs for import of boilers, registration, and issuance of certificates after inspections of the drawings and designs of boilers, renewal of boiler use certificates on an annual basis after inspection, issuance of boiler construction certificates by the inspection authority for locally made boilers and issuance of boiler operation qualification certificates to successful candidates after a test of trainees is taken.
According to several boiler inspectors at the Gazipur office, at present there are no faulty boilers in factories in the industrial district.
"We have a lot of limitations. We do not have our own vehicles for inspection," Boiler Inspector Engineer Murshalin Ahmed said.
"Besides, the office does not have any advanced equipment for testing, including video scoping, ultrasonic thickness gauge, ultrasonic flow metre, steam trap testing and ultrasonic flow detector. We need to bring some equipment from the head office."
Deputy Chief Inspector of Boilers Engineer Pranab Kumar Sarkar said there are many limitations in the nearly hundred-year-old law. For example, a fine of Tk10,000 is not a factor for a factory owner.
"The law has no provision of conducting mobile courts and that is why we cannot impose any punishment immediately. Each boiler has to be renewed every year but the annual renewal fee is only Tk2,500-Tk9,000. It should also be increased," he said.
Engineer Sarkar said the ministry concerned has already taken steps to reform the old law.
He added that inspectors need advanced training at home and abroad to increase their skills. As there is no independent institute for the training of operators, they were trained at various times at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Buet), the Bangladesh Industrial Technical Assistance Centre (Bitac) at Tejgaon and the Training Institute of Chemical Industries in Narsingdi.
"If there is a separate institution for them, skilled boiler operators will be easily available in the country," he added.
Engineer Pranab Kumar Sarkar said in order to avoid boiler accidents, awareness meetings are held with stakeholders every year through this office. In addition, various types of advice were given to the people concerned, campaigns were run and leaflets were distributed among them.
"If we are all aware, boiler accidents can be avoided," he said.