One Dead After Explosion at Levi’s Supplier

One woman died and seven more were injured on Wednesday after a steam generator exploded, launched into the air and landed on the group as they were having lunch at a Phnom Penh garment factory that makes jeans for U.S. brand Levi’s.

Chinese-owned Zhen Tai Garment, located in Sen Sok district’s Phnom Penh Thmey commune, is being investigated after the machine, which is used in the final stage of jeans production, killed 45-year-old worker Kul Samorn, said commune chief Chhum Saray.

A security guard directs people away from an exploded steam generator inside the Zhen Tai Garment factory compound in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district on Wednesday. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Witnesses interviewed at the factory on Wednesday afternoon said that at about 11:40 a.m. the generator exploded, launched into the air with force, fell back down and slammed on top of the factory’s outdoor cafeteria about 100 meters away.

“We haven’t found out the reason yet, but it might be caused by the heat of the steam generator causing too much high pressure,” Mr. Saray said.

Sok Sona, an employee at the factory, said she had finished her lunch and was walking back toward the factory doors when she heard a loud “boom.” She looked back to a devastating scene.

“When the steam generator bounced back on the ground it hit a worker’s head and killed her,” she said, adding that some of those injured—including a pregnant woman—sustained broken bones and cracked skulls.

Security guard Yoeun Phanit said carelessness by people in charge of the generator could have caused the explosion. He said a fire at the bottom of the generator that boils water inside, which in turn becomes steam, may have been left alight for too long, causing intense heat.

“They might have turned off the valve and forgotten to put out the fire,” he said. “While they went to have their lunch…it caused the heat to increase and it exploded.”

A sign outside Zhen Tai Garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Phanit said police questioned the machine’s operator after the incident.

Kul Samorn’s sister-in-law, Kul Sanny, who also works at the factory, but was in the bathroom at the time of the incident, said she had heard from other workers that the generator had exploded once before.

She said she hoped the company would compensate her family appropriately, which she expected to be about $1,000.

Zhen Tai is registered with Better Factories Cambodia (BFC), a program run by the International Labor Organization to ensure safe and fair working conditions in factories that export their goods. According to the program’s website, the factory was last assessed in October 2015 and had failed to comply with two “critical issues”: “workers join and form unions freely” and “emergency exit doors are unlocked during working hours.”

However, BFC program director Esther Germans said the website had not yet been updated to include their most recent assessment of the factory, which took place in December and found no critical issues.

“We normally check these type of machines during our assessment, including documents related to safety,” she said in an email.

Ms. Germans said she would visit the factory today, and that future assessments by BFC would prioritize machine safety.

“I’m sure that in further work of the programme with the factory, priority will be given to key OSH [occupational safety and health] issues, including machine safety,” she said.

Khmer Union Federation of Workers Spirit, a government-aligned union representing most of the Zhen Tai workers, said the factory must be held responsible for the accident.

“This fault is the factory’s technical error, so the factory must be responsible for the compensation,” said Thong Soeun, the union’s human resources manager. “The factory must pay medical treatment fees, transportation fees and other benefits.”

Mr. Soeun said the union would be following the process closely and providing victims with support along the way.

A spokeswoman for Levi Strauss & Co. said the brand “extends our sympathy to those workers and their families who were affected by the explosion” and was “deeply concerned about the explosion.”

“We have started an investigation to learn more about today’s events,” the spokeswoman said via email, adding that Levi’s would work with the factory to make sure the workers and their families were properly compensated.

Management at Zhen Tai could not be reached, and reporters were prevented from entering the factory premises.

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