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Status of occupational safety and health in India

By Sanjiv Pandita

India has had legislation on occupational safety and health for 50 years. But regulatory authorities are limited to 1,400 safety officers, 1,154 factory inspectors, and 27 medical inspectors. These numbers are grossly inadequate even for the inspection of formal units that only employ about 10% of India's total workforce (around 26 million), let alone the millions who work in the informal sector with absolutely no safeguards

Nusrat can feel the silica dust going deep into her lungs. The whole room is covered with white silica powder. She works in a small home-based unit polishing agate stones in Khambat district of Gujarat.

Polishing of semi-precious stones, a home-based industry in this town, has wreaked havoc on the health of the entire community. Nusrat's husband, like hundreds of others in the village, died of silicosis (a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust). Nusrat fears she too will die. But she has no alternative source of livelihood, and she has three children to feed. Her concern now is that if she dies, her elder son will have to take up the same job, and possibly suffer the same fate.

This vicious circle of death and poverty epitomises the work situation of millions of workers in India.

In June 2008, at the XVII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, organised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) (1) in Seoul, Korea, India's labour secretary Sudha Pillai was invited to speak on strategies and programmes for safety and health in the future. This was surprising, considering India's dismal health and safety record, with safety being accorded low priority by both government and industry.

The labour secretary's presentation highlighted this aspect -- it was devoid of any visual representations, data or numbers on the present status of occupational safety and health in India. Pillai spoke at length about the Indian government's future strategies towards improving health and safety at work. But these improvements can only be made if the government has a clear view of the present situation.

It is estimated that unsafe work conditions is one of the leading causes of death and disability among India's working population. These deaths are needless and preventable. Unlike growth rates and GDP figures that are flaunted every quarter, the figures of dying and ailing workers who make this growth possible are never recorded or spoken about. The only way to get an idea of the scale of the problem is from data released by the ILO (2), which estimates that around 403,000 people in India die every year due to work-related problems. To give some idea of the scale -- more than 1,000 workers die every day from work-related diseases; that's about 46 every hour!

Though these figures are alarming, they might be a conservative estimate as the ILO does not receive complete and reliable data from India. For example, in 2003, India reported 179 fatal accidents, while the ILO put the estimate at 47,000.

There are no reliable figures for occupational diseases either. The ILO arrives at these figures by extrapolating them from developed countries like Denmark where every accident and disease is reported.

Legal framework

Safety and health occupy a significant place in India's Constitution, which prohibits employment of children under the age of 14 in factories, mines and hazardous occupations. This policy aims to protect the health and strength of all workers by discouraging employment in occupations unsuitable to the worker's age and strength. It is the policy of the State to make provisions to secure just and humane conditions at work. The Constitution provides a broad framework under which policies and programmes for occupational health and safety can be established.

Legislation on occupational health and safety has existed in India for over 50 years. The principal health and safety laws are based on the British Factories Act. The Factories Act, 1948 has been amended from time to time, especially after the Bhopal gas disaster, which could have been prevented. The amendment demanded a shift away from dealing with disaster (or disease) to prevention of its occurrence. The Factories (Amendment) Act came into force on December 1, 1987. A special chapter on occupational health and safety to safeguard workers employed in hazardous industries was added. In this chapter, pre-employment and periodic medical examinations and monitoring of the work environment are mandatory for industries defined as hazardous under the Act. A maximum permissible limit has been laid down for a number of chemicals.

The Act is implemented by state factory inspectorates, supported by industrial hygiene laboratories. There are similar provisions under the Mines Act. The Factories Act is applicable only to factories that employ 10 or more workers; it covers only a small proportion of workers.

Key OSH legislations

  • Factories Act, 1948, amended in 1954, 1970, 1976, 1987
  • Mines Act, 1952
  • Dock Workers (Safety, Health and Welfare) Act, 1986
  • Plantation Labour Act, 1951
  • Explosives Act, 1884
  • Petroleum Act, 1934
  • Insecticide Act, 1968
  • Indian Boilers Act, 1923
  • Indian Electricity Act, 1910
  • Dangerous Machines (Regulations) Act, 1983
  • Indian Atomic Energy Act, 1962
  • Radiological Protection Rules, 1971
  • Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989

The Directorate General of Factory Advice Service and Labour Institutes (DGFASLI) assists the labour ministry in formulating national policies on occupational safety and health in factories and docks, and enforcing them through inspectorates of factories and inspectorates of dock safety. Similarly, the Director General of Mines Safety (DGMS), Ministry of Labour, is responsible for the health and safety of mine workers and implementation of the Mines Act, 1952.

There are also two key laws covering worker compensation and welfare. They are:

  • Workmen's Compensation Law, by which a worker can claim compensation under establishments covered by the Factories Act.
  • Employees Sate Insurance Act (ESI Act), which is a contributory social insurance scheme that protects the interests of workers in contingencies such as sickness, maternity, employment injury causing temporary or permanent physical disability or death, loss of wages or loss of earning capacity. As of March 2006, there were 35.4 million beneficiaries under this scheme.

ILO conventions

The International Labour Organisation frames key conventions for protecting the rights of workers; many of them are specifically on occupational health and safety. These conventions, once ratified by member states, form guiding principles for the formulation of national policies and laws. The ILO has 18 conventions that are targeted at addressing the issue of occupational safety and health (OSH). Though India has ratified 41 ILO conventions and treaties on labour welfare and labour rights to date, it has ratified only three conventions on OSH. India is still to ratify important conventions like Convention 155 on occupational safety and health and the working environment, Convention 161 on occupational health services, Convention 167 on safety and health in construction, Convention 176 on safety and health in mines, Convention 184 on safety and health in agriculture, Convention 187, the promotional framework for occupational safety and health.

Lax implementation

In spite of having a good legal framework for the protection of workers, India suffers from the chronic problem of lax implementation. Regulatory bodies, including the inspectorates, are ill-equipped and severely understaffed. According to a DGFASLI report (1998), the country has 1,400 safety officers, 1,154 factory inspectors, and 27 medical inspectors. These numbers are grossly inadequate even for the inspection of formal units that only employ about 10% of India's total workforce.

Occupational diseases and their diagnosis

Accidents, despite being visible, are still grossly underreported in the Indian context. The reporting of insidious occupational diseases therefore stands little chance. If we analyse the details of workers who die because of their work environment, we find that, surprisingly, most of them succumb to occupational cancers and other work-related illnesses. This is contrary to the common belief that most work-related deaths are caused by accidents. In most places, occupational safety and health invariably means prevention of accidents; very little attention is paid to occupational diseases. An accident-free workplace by no means implies a safe workplace.

Occupational diseases -- including cancers caused by various materials in the workplace, including asbestos, carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals, silica, cotton, dust, and radiation, job stress and work shifts -- usually take a long time to develop (from a few months to more than 10 years). And given changing work practices, most industries tend to hire workers on short-term contract. By the time they develop a disease, therefore, it is almost impossible to link it to their work.

Non-communicable diseases result in more deaths than communicable diseases, except in Africa. Overall, people are more likely to die of work-related diseases than childhood or infectious diseases.

Not many doctors are able to correctly diagnose an occupational disease. In fact, certain occupational diseases like byssinosis (a lung disease caused by cotton dust) and silicosis (a lung disease caused by silica dust) are often wrongly diagnosed as tuberculosis. In a community where having a doctor is a privilege, an OSH specialist is simply out of the question.

Informal sector problems

Most workers in India (90%) work in the vast informal sector. The variable and insecure nature of the work means that more and more workers are pushed into taking up hazardous and precarious employment both in the informal economy as well as informal work in the formal sector. For these workers, employment not only fails to bring about a successful escape from poverty, it may contribute to existing vulnerabilities.

There are other contributory factors that lead to poor working conditions in the informal sector:

  • There is very little awareness about workplace hazards due to lack of access to information, or even any kind of formal education. Then too, OSH is given very low priority among informal workers, as having work is more important than the quality of the job. As many workers say: "We might die of work, but if we don't work our families will die of hunger."
  • No proper work hours; piece-rate work often leads to exploitation and extended exposure to hazardous chemicals and processes.
  • Diagnosis of occupational diseases is difficult even in the formal sector; in the informal sector it is almost impossible. In the absence of proper diagnosis, treatment of occupational illness is next to impossible for workers in this sector.
  • No clear distinction between living and working area complicates the problem and exposes relatives and others living in the vicinity to work-related risks.

Effects on women and children

If information on OSH hazards among informal workers is poor, their impact on women's health is even less understood. In addition to paid work, women also do other demanding jobs like cooking, cleaning and taking care of the children. The extended work hours puts tremendous pressure on women's bodies and minds. Women also face an increased risk of musculo-skeletal disorders because of the repetitive nature of the jobs they perform, and having to work in uncomfortable positions for long hours (sometimes they work with babies in their laps or on their backs). Women who work with chemicals like solvents in adhesives, in home-based work, or pesticides out in the fields are also in danger of chemical poisoning. Working pregnant women expose their unborn children to great risks.

Child labour is a big problem in the informal sector in India. Children in the informal sector sometimes have to help their parents, for economic reasons. The growing bodies of children are more susceptible to hazards at the workplace, but since children (legally) are not supposed to work, very few initiatives are targeted at improving their working conditions.

(Sanjiv Pandita is a labour activist with the Hong Kong-based Asia Monitor Resource Centre)

Endnotes

1The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is an international tripartite UN agency consisting of representation from workers, employers and governments of its member states. It aims to promote decent work conditions throughout the world

2'Beyond deaths and injuries: The ILO's role in promoting safe and healthy jobs', the International Labour Organisation, 2008

InfoChange News & Features, April 2009