A fire at a poultry plant in northeastern China has killed at least 119 people.

Several dozen other people were hurt in the blaze in Jilin province's Mishazi township, which appeared to have been sparked by three early morning explosions, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The provincial fire department attributed the blasts to an ammonia leak. The chemical is kept pressurized as part of the cooling system in meat processing plants.

The fire was one of China's worst recent industrial disasters, with the death toll the highest since a September 2008 mining cave-in that claimed 281 lives.

It was the third major industrial blaze to be reported in China in the past four days.

The two earlier fires were an oil tank explosion in Liaoning province that caused another oil tank to catch fire, killing two, and a blaze in a large granary in Heilongjiang province that wiped out 1,000 tons of grain.

The accident highlighted the high human costs of China's lax industrial safety standards, which continue to plague workplaces despite improvements in the country's work safety record in recent years.

State media quoted survivors as saying it was difficult for workers to escape because only one door to the plant was open while other exits were locked and the fire spread quickly.

State broadcaster CCTV quoted unidentified workers as saying the fire broke out during a change of shifts when about 350 workers were at the plant, owned by Jilin Baoyuanfeng Poultry Co.

It was not clear how many workers had been accounted for and the death toll was expected to rise further as more bodies were recovered from the charred building.

A witness said some employees raised the alarm shortly after the shift began, and then the lights went out, causing panic as workers rushed to find an exit.

A worker said the emergency exit at her workstation could not be opened and she was knocked to the ground in the crush of workers seeking to escape through a side door.

"I could only crawl desperately forward," Guo was quoted as saying. "I worked alongside an old lady and a young girl, but I don't know if they survived or not."

The newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily, known for its aggressive reporting, said the accident occurred in a factory building where chickens were being dismembered.

The newspaper reported on its microblog that the fire spread rapidly, with industrial boilers exploding, and only a side door to the building was open with the rest of the exits locked.

It quoted an unidentified worker as saying the fire engulfed the building in three minutes, leaving too little time for many to flee.

State media quoted hospital workers as saying that most of the injured survivors were being treated for inhalation of toxic gases such as ammonia while others had burns of varying degrees.

Jilin Baoyuanfeng produces 67,000 tonnes of processed chicken per year and employs about 1,200 people.

The plant is located outside the city of Dehui, about 800km northeast of China's capital, Beijing.

Established in 2009, the company serves markets in 20 cities nationwide and has won numerous awards for its contribution to the local economy, according to introductions posted online.