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Heat, dust and chemical exposure

Photographs and text by P Madhavan

From textile dyeing units to the asbestos and granite industries, millions handle toxic chemicals and meterials with no protective gear and no awareness of the hazards involved

 A boy from a soapstone crushing unit in Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Asbestos fibre, a toxic mineral, and soapstone are mostly found together; crushed soapstone is always contaminated with asbestos fibre.

Soapstone is mined and used to make talcum powder and other cosmetic products in India. Workers in these crushing units work for 10-12 hours a day. The factory and their bodies are almost always covered in dust. They wear no protection and must inhale the soapstone dust mixed with asbestos fibre whilst they work. They take the dust back home with them on their bodies and in their clothes.


 A boy fills holes with explosives for stone blasting. The Government of India, in Metalliferous Mines Regulations 1961, specifies that only a trained certified blaster can be employed in the trade.

There is a high incidence of blindness arising out of accidents in the mining industry where gunpowder is regularly used for blasting.


 Andhra Pradesh is a granite hotspot, producing an estimated 10,7242 million cubic metres. The world-renowned Kuppam green and grey, black galaxy granite, Srikakulam blue, Warangal and Khammam black, the tan brown of Karimnagar, tiger skin of Chittoor, etc, occur in huge quantities here. Granite worth about Rs 3,000 million (US$60 million) is exported from the state. There are significant opportunities for making novel products from polished granite; they enjoy good demand in the international market.

The condition of workers in the quarries, however, is pathetic. They are exposed to stone dust which leads to silicosis. Apart from diseases, the accident rate in the quarries is high due to improper safety apparatus and procedures.


 Venomous snake bites are fairly common among tea garden workers. And while not nearly as dangerous, the overbearing presence of leeches in the rainy season -- and it rains a lot -- is a chronic nuisance for tea pluckers walking among the tea bushes.

The women have no protection from the rain or the leeches; some apply pesticide paste on their legs or wrap plastic sheets around their wrists to evade pests.

A huge amount of pesticides is sprayed in tea plantations, affecting the workers. Toxic runoff from the plantations also contaminates water sources in the area.


 Workers in the salt industry are constantly exposed to direct sunlight, salt dust and brine. Brine workers have a high risk of developing Pterygium (conjunctiva) probably due to exposure to sunlight reflected both from the brine surface and from salt crystals.

Salt workers are one of the most marginalised and vulnerable sections of society in Tamil Nadu and other salt-producing states in India.

According to a Central Salt Commissioner's Office study on salt workers, India has around 150,000 salt workers who live with their families for eight months in a year in an extremely harsh environment without basic socio-economic amenities like drinking water, schools and hospitals. Or any knowledge of their statutory rights. This is a labour-intensive industry involving the risk of blindness, high blood pressure, skin lesions, knee injuries, back pain, exhaustion, tuberculosis and chronic cough. Also epidemics like malaria.

Coupled with this is the fact that most workers are from the backward castes; they are unorganised, are paid low wages (on a no-work-no-pay basis), and suffer exploitation at the hands of intermediaries in the salt business, including moneylenders.


 Punjab's lethal pesticide legacy can be traced back to the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when high-yielding varieties were introduced in the region's relatively arid Malwa belt.

Initially, the move was successful as yields and prices soared. But farmers soon discovered that the crop was highly susceptible to pests and ended up spending huge amounts on pesticides. As pests such as the pink bollworm and aphids became increasingly resistant to chemical spraying, farmers reacted by spraying more chemicals, sometimes even mixing two or more pesticides together.

Pesticide companies blame farmers for not adhering to prescribed quantities and not using protective gear. Workers who spray the chemicals blame landlords for not investing in protective gear, and companies for not properly informing them of the dangers of exposure to pesticides. Farmers claim it is greedy dealers who push them to spray more; they also blame the government for its failure to change policies after the harmful side-effects of the Green Revolution began showing.


 Cotton workers are susceptible to various morbid health conditions ranging from chronic respiratory diseases (byssinosis) brought on by cotton dust inhalation, to anaemia due to nutritional deficiencies, varicose veins to lower back pain because of their work posture.

These workers in Bhatinda district, Punjab, work in this cotton mill without any personal protection, increasing their health risk.


 Sanganer, near Jaipur in Rajasthan, is famous for its fine hand block printing in subdued colours. Hand block printing was patronised by the royal family. Sanganer has become an export hub for hand block prints. Screen-printing too is done here.

Most of the work in Sanganer is done manually. Before being dyed and screen-printed, the cotton cloth is acid bleached. The worker adds acid to the water and mixes it with his bare hands. He wears no protection for his eyes, nose, hands or legs.

The workers, mostly migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, suffer various lung and skin diseases, many of which go undiagnosed and untreated.


 Textile industries must satisfy ever-increasing demands in terms of quality, variety, fastness of dyes, and other technical requirements.

A recent study conducted under the national Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP) reveals that chemical colours have all but wiped out India's vegetable dyes. The Indian textile industry now predominantly uses synthetic dyes like direct dyes, processing dyes, reactive dyes, etc. A large variety of dyes and chemicals are used in an attempt to come up with more attractive shades of fabrics in a highly competitive market.

These dyes pollute the environment and pose a threat to workers. Dyeing of cloth in Sanganer is done manually. The worker turns the cloth inside the dyeing pit, which contains chemical dyes, without any protection to his hands or legs.


 Hospitals generate large amounts of infectious waste. Although most hospital waste is classified as general waste -- similar in nature to municipal solid waste -- and therefore can be disposed of in municipal landfills, a small proportion of infectious waste has to be managed properly in order to minimise the risk to public health.

The quantum of medical waste that is generated in India is estimated to be 1-2 kg per bed per day in a hospital, and 600 gm per bed per day at a general practitioner's clinic. A 100-bedded hospital, for example, will generate 100-200 kg of hospital waste per day. It is estimated that 5-10% of this comprises hazardous/infectious waste (5-10 kg per day).

The occupational health effects of hospital waste depend on the duration of exposure and the dose of toxic components that enters the worker's body from the waste. Unmanaged hospital waste, like this at Shillong General Hospital, constitutes a hazard to people because it contains toxic chemicals and pathogens ready to enter the human body via various routes.


 Workers at an asbestos cement roofing sheet making factory in Tamil Nadu. Workers in the factory do not wear protective gear. Fine white cement dust mixed with asbestos is visible everywhere.

In the picture we see an asbestos cement sheet being cut. The process generates a lot of dust which is inhaled by the workers. During lunchtime, the workers sit inside the plant to eat their food as there are no basic facilities like a separate canteen or eating place. Some workers take a brief nap inside the plant after lunch.

Contract workers are not unionised and are made to do more work than permanent workers. Even unions for permanent workers do not bother much about the occupational safety and health of workers.


 A worker in a small-scale thermometer manufacturing unit. Processes and operations connected with the manufacture of mercury thermometers involve two stages. The first is making the glass parts and filling them with mercury; the second, calibrating them. From the safety point of view, the riskiest operation is calibration which is still being done using the most primitive methods.

The calibration process involves several tasks with exposed mercury in which vapour escapes into the air, contaminating the premises.

Since thermometer manufacturing is a small-scale industry in India, manufacturing facilities are usually small rooms with minimal ventilation.


 India leads the world in diamond manufacturing, with a 60% share in value, 85% share in volume, and 92% share in the number of pieces produced. Rough diamonds have been mined in India since historic times. But it was only after 1962 that diamond processing, cutting and polishing developed as an industry.

Nearly 80% of India's natural diamond processing is done in Gujarat, and Surat and Navsari in particular.

In the early-'70s, the industry was estimated to have around 1,200 units providing employment to about 20,000 workers. Currently, there are more than 6,000 diamond cutting units in Surat, some of them employing over 1,000 persons each.

Breathing in cobalt-containing dust causes various respiratory problems including asthma and interstitial lung disease. Occupational asthma caused by cobalt chloride has been diagnosed in workers polishing diamonds in Surat, Gujarat's diamond city.


(P Madhavan is a documentary photographer and artist who has investigated and reported on working conditions in various industrial sectors in India. He is based in Vasco, Goa)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009