At what cost?
The current string of industrial accidents portray the disgraceful reality of India’s industries largely prioritising productivity and growth while shunning safety and health standards, a cold calculation with a heavy human collateral
As it goes through difficult times, India is making every effort in its preparation to overcome and emerge stronger than ever. Turning the challenges into opportunities can do wonders. There are challenges on many fronts including economy, health, environment and employment which are very much interconnected. One of the important priorities should be to boost industrial manufacturing so that it can fulfil demands indigenously, offer employment, reduce import dependency and support the GDP. While focussing on boosting the sector, this opportunity must be utilised to cleanse the inherent problems — mainly, the environmental conservation and safety practices that are needed for Indian industries to match the global standards. It's time to be a leader rather than an outlier.
Attitude towards the environment is changing because of gradual reforms in regulatory norms and compliance check process, however, the same is not true for industrial safety and occupational health. It is grossly neglected and poorly managed. As per the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the average rate of reported yearly fatal accidents in Indian factories is 20.85 per 1,000,000 workers, matching rates in countries like Kenya, Mozambique and Bolivia. Moreover, this is based on the Government's recorded figures which are inherently grossly underreported. Yearly fatal accidents in the European Union, in comparison, stand at a mere 1.53. Accidents are a result of safety procedure negligence in most cases. Serious accidents such as the release of poisonous gases, an explosion of pressurised equipment and the collapse of infrastructure often bring deadly consequences for many.
A sore spot
The dirtiest scar on India's industrial safety — the Bhopal Gas Tragedy reminds us of what harm safety negligence can do. It is claimed that safety-ignorance led to the release of methyl isocyanate gas from the factory which killed many thousands and injured over half a million people. Even after 36 years, children and new-borns carry the scar of the aftermath. What did we learn from that disaster? The answer, sadly, is nothing. Since the Bhopal tragedy, many infamous accidents have come to light. The Bombay Docks Explosion in 1944 that killed nearly 800, Chasnala mining accident in 1975 that killed over 370, Korba chimney collapse in 2009 that killed 45, Sivakasi firecracker factory explosion in 2012 that killed 40, Unchahar power plant explosion in 2017 that killed 40 and Delhi factory fire in 2019 that killed 43, are just to name a few which were brought to the knowledge of the public.
Just a few days back, gas leakage from Sainor Life Sciences in Vizag and boiler blast in Neyveli Lignite in Cuddalore killed nearly 10 and injured many. It followed three other industrial accidents which occurred last month — styrene gas leak from a chemical plant in Vizag, boiler explosion in a thermal power plant in Cuddalore and a poisonous gas leak incident in a paper mill. All of these incidents occurred on the same day and killed around 18 and injured thousands.
Negligence of such accidents brings imbalance to the relationship between industries and workers.
Learning from mistakes
It took us decades to accept the criticality of environmental challenges associated with industrial activities, otherwise, if corrective actions were to be taken on time, pollution issues would have not been so serious today — 20 most polluted cities out of the top 30 in the world are in India. A study by Yale and Columbia Universities lists India at 168th position out of 180 countries on Environmental Performance Index in 2020. These signs indicate that we didn't act on time and what was done is not enough. Firm measures are required to control the situation before it becomes too late for conserving our resources and maintaining a liveable environment. The story mustn't be repeated for industrial safety.
Who is most affected by these accidents? The answer is obvious. It is mainly unskilled workers and, in case of an external accident which goes beyond the industrial premise, the neighbourhood community. They are least aware of health and safety provisions and their rights, ultimately suffering greatly and ending up with no more than meagre compensations and condolences. Social and economic inequality, rule of the mighty and poor governance makes it even worse.
Accidents affect the industry as well due to economic impacts from operational losses, loss of productivity, cost of repair, compensation and legal consequences. However, this level of loss cannot hold ground against the loss of life and livelihood of underprivileged victims of such accidents. It doesn't mean that industry operators are happy with the accidents, they just have a habitual disregard for safety and occupational health. Safety is rarely a compliance issue, barely hurts corporate pockets and, therefore, stands far from business-related decision-making processes like environmental obligations.
Industries such as iron and steel, cement, power, mines, etc., have a high potential for accidents and occupational health hazards. They may have a separate fire, safety, health and environment department, or some combinations of these. Leaving aside bigger corporates, the majority of industries have health and safety departments that largely exist to manage documents. Workers also show negligence in using PPE which the majority of the industry management allows.
Systems in place
The Director-General of Factory Advice Service and Labour Institutes (DGFASLI) under the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment helps in formulating national policies on safety and occupational health at factories and ports and coordinates with state-level factory inspection bodies. The state government through factory inspectors, dock inspectors and medical practitioners regulate the safety and occupational health-related issues in the state.
The health and occupational safety in factories is governed as per the 'Factories Act, 1948' whereas that of port workers is governed mainly under the 'Dock Workers (Safety, Health and Welfare) Act, 1986'. Other key allied Acts and Rules used include — the Manufacture, Storage & Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989; the Indian Explosive Act, 1984; the Indian Petroleum Act, 1934; the Building & Other Construction Workers Act, 1996; the Boilers Act, 1923; and the Indian Electricity Act, 1910; among others. For safety and occupational health at mines, the Directorate General of Mines Safety (DGMS) under the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment is the responsible party. The same is governed by the Central Government as per the 'Mines Act, 1958'.
Agencies like the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) promulgate standards and guidelines. These are voluntary in nature but often preferred by industries for organisational reputation and wide brand acceptance. Certification like OSHAS 18001 (now ISO 45001) is common in industries, mainly to showcase that they have international standard safety and occupational health management systems in the plant, however, the reality on the ground may show otherwise.
Many regulations, little enforcement
The state government appoints factory inspectors and medical practitioners to keep a tab on safety and occupational health issues in the factory. But the inspection is carried out generally when an accident is brought to the notice of the factory inspector. It literally means that industrial safety and occupational health practices are totally in the hands of the industry. Since there is no periodical compliance check, safety and occupational health remain voluntary. While the number of industries and work ambit multiplies, the limited number of inspectors fails to serve the purpose. Merely one-third of registered industries are inspected once a year. DGFASLI data for 2011 indicates that merely 750 factory inspectors and 650 certified surgeons are available for 11 million workers employed in 3.2 lakh registered factories. This number is grossly inadequate even for this formal sector where only 10 per cent of the total Indian workforce is employed. The informal sector which employs 90 per cent of the workforce does not even need to be explicitly mentioned in this regard. Industrial setups are generally required to be constructed away from residential areas to safeguard from any potential hazard. But it is common to see communities settled around industries. The reason varies. Sometimes, industries manage to get a clearance for a factory to be set up near to a residential area while at times it is the community that settles around it. Both situations don't align with legal provisions. Lapses on part of the concerned authorities are the common cause in both cases.
In case of a fatal accident, a factory inspector is bound to visit the factory within a month of the incident reported. The state government may also set-up an enquiry in case of or suspicion of such events in the factory. If there is any contravention to the provisions of the Act, imprisonment or penalty or both can be fixed on the owner of the premise who ultimately carries the liability of the accident unless he proves otherwise in the court.
For workers also, the regulation has provisions for important concerns like permissible level of hazard exposure, work timings, allowance, leaves, healthcare, safety, compensation and training are entrusted in the act, but the implementation largely depends on the industry. It's missing the driving force which affects implementation on the ground; adequacy of regulation doesn't appear to be a major problem. Yes, corruption does play a role here. Ultimately, the entire exercise gets limited to just paperwork which the industries know to manage well.
Recording and reporting of accidents and occupational diseases generally lacks credibility in India. An ILO report highlighting the poor reporting system indicates that India reports only 222 fatal accidents officially, less than the Czech Republic which has one per cent of India's population. The fatal accidents are estimated to be around 40,000 in number. ILO report of 2003 highlights that over 4,03,000 people yearly die from work-related matters in India.
A large number of accidents within the plant boundary do not even see the light of day. The actual regulations in place instruct that even something minor such as an accident which compels worker remain out of work for 48 hours or more, called reportable accident, needs to be reported to the factory inspector, leave aside something as major as a fatality. Since it is largely a self-reporting and not-so transparent procedure without enough avenues of cross-checking, under-reporting is common. The community and worker unions often talk about accidents and fatalities that do not get reported. The ones we see in public are those that are large and catastrophic enough to go beyond the bounds of the industrial plants.
As per provisions, no worker can be allowed to work on the premise unless they are listed in the factory register. But unskilled workers mostly get employed through small contractors who often mess-up the provisions or keep them off-the-record to avoid any liability in the case of mishaps. These workers rarely have access to proper facilities and legal rights and may not be even counted in case of an accident. Their lives stand nowhere. Industries prefer contractual workers as they come with less liability. As a result, contractual workers may constitute 60-80 per cent of the total manpower of an industry.
Possibility of zero accidents
Industries like petrochemicals and refineries, where safety is critical and integral to the business process, are being taken care of with all seriousness, however, occupational health may still be not so important. Some of the major industries which have adopted safety and occupational health policies on a corporate level and implemented properly in the factory have done well on this front. They manage in-house standards and provisions of penalty for safety negligence such as not wearing PPEs, driving fast on the factory premise, etc. Such industries manage to achieve the zero accidents standard. Their efforts are often recognised in this regard as well — brands get a good reputation for their safety standards and their products attain widespread acceptability in India and abroad. This should be a standard practice in Indian industries. Unfortunately, such industries are limited since the majority of industries have little regard for safety and occupational health.
Beside production efficiency and proper environmental initiatives, safety and occupation health practices are hallmarks of the world's best industries. Growing industrial activities, industrial hazard, technological advancements and change in manufacturing processes call for effective safety and occupational health regimes that help in higher manpower productivity and better place in a competitive market economy. This is a sign of an ethical and responsible business which brings good repute and ensures a large customer base. If Indian industries have to rise to the global level, both the industries and the Government have to work together.
The Government must ensure the serious implementation of the regulations in place by reviewing the legislation, streamlining the system, strengthening regulatory infrastructure, increasing surveillance and encouraging industries to adopt safety and occupational health system and practices. Transparency in regulatory procedures and bringing in compliance requirements may prove very effective. To adopt such an ideal system, an industry has to have a full-fledge department with proper facilities and full-time technical and non-technical employees. Training safety inspectors is also important. The head of such a department should have the authority to make decisions in case of plant-level emergencies. Since the bigger decisions often require approval from the management or board of directors' level, the department head must be able to communicate the issue to the top management for quick decision making. Periodic training, mock-drills and auditing must be practised.
Adoption of safety and occupational health policies at the corporate level which is further implemented at their factories and plants, can be a driver in achieving what seems a distant reality.