Caixin
Feb 22, 2020 08:07 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Concerns Emerge About Steel Giant’s Workers in Coronavirus Epicenter

Wuhan Iron and Steel is based in Qingshan district, one the areas of Wuhan hit hardest by the outbreak. Photo: Caixin
Wuhan Iron and Steel is based in Qingshan district, one the areas of Wuhan hit hardest by the outbreak. Photo: Caixin
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A unit of China Baowu Steel Group Corp. Ltd., China’s largest steel producer, is facing concerns about the health of its workers at its plants in Wuhan, which have kept running throughout the coronavirus outbreak that has shaken the city.

About 6,000 workers of Wuhan Iron & Steel Corp., Baowu’s steel manufacturing arm in the city, the epicenter of the outbreak, have still been working normal schedules since the outbreak began late last year.

Wuhan Iron and Steel is based in Qingshan district, one the areas in the city hit hardest by the outbreak. As of Feb. 13, Wuhan Iron and Steel had reported 69 confirmed infections at the company, while Baowu Steel had reported 119 infections, two deaths and 51 suspected cases at its headquarters in Wuhan, Central China’s Hubei province, according to a Baowu Steel document obtained by Caixin. The document also said that 915 workers had been put into isolation.

Wuhan Iron and Steel is a crown jewel of the Baowu Steel empire. It employs about 18,000 full-time employees and can produce up to 14 million tons of steel products a year, including home appliance panels, heavy rails and subway rails. In 2018, Baowu Steel’s Wuhan headquarters had the third highest revenue of any enterprise in Hubei. Wuhan Iron and Steel is its main asset.

Since the outbreak began, concerns about infections and the manufacturer’s prevention efforts have emerged. Factory workers generally commute to and from work in shuttle buses, and need to shower and change clothes together before starting work.

One worker said that the shuttle bus has 46 seats — though each usually only carries about 30 people — and travels every day between Qingshan’s residential communities and the industrial area where the company’s plants are located. In the plants’ locker rooms, usually more than a dozen people change clothes and shower together, the worker said. “We all know that there is an incubation period for the disease, so going to work is a gamble,” he said, adding that he lives with four family members. “If I ever get infected at work, I’ll be putting my family in danger.”

Other concerns stem from the company not keeping workers as informed as they would like to be. “I have colleagues who suddenly just don’t come to work anymore, but I don’t know why,” one Wuhan Iron and Steel employee said, adding that workers had not been informed about the number of infections at the company. Multiple employees said that the company provides one mask a day on average to each worker.

In response to the concerns, a manager said in a phone call that the company shuttle bus is less than 60% full on average and there is no evidence that the virus has ever spread among passengers.

At the factory, the steelmaker said that it had tried its best to ensure a sufficient supply of masks for workers. It also sanitizes the shuttle buses and work areas at least twice a day. It also isolates the office area and encourages office employees to work remotely.

Caixin has learned that Wuhan Iron and Steel still maintains normal steel production. In January, its output of iron, steel and other materials reached nearly 1.2 million tons, 1.3 million tons and 1.1 million tons, respectively — slightly more than planned.

Contact reporter Timmy Shen (hongmingshen@caixin.com, Twitter: @timmyhmshen) and editor Michael Bellart (michaelbellart@caixin.com)

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