Industrial Safety

Norms to the winds

Print edition : March 07, 2014

A view of North Chennai Thermal Plant. Photo: V. GANESAN

Colin Gonsalves, Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court, who argued the case for the petitioners. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

In view of the violation of the norms for the health and safety of workers in thermal plants, the Supreme Court directs the High Courts to examine whether adequate health delivery systems are in place.

THE Supreme Court judgment in Occupational Health and Safety Association vs Union of India, delivered by Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan on January 31, has brought to the fore the serious health hazards faced by workers in coal-based thermal power plants across the country. A protracted legal struggle that began in 2005 has only culminated in the apex court giving directions to the High Courts to examine whether there are adequate and effective health delivery systems in place and to evaluate the occupational health status of workers in thermal power plants.

While upholding the right to health and the right to live in a clean, hygienic and safe environment as rights flowing from Article 21 (the right to life) of the Constitution, the judgment said that it would not be practicable for the apex court to examine whether coal-based thermal power plants across the country were complying with safety standards and the rules and regulations relating to the health of employees in such plants. The High Courts in 18 States, including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, have been asked to examine these issues with the assistance of the State governments after calling for necessary reports from the thermal power plants in their respective States.

The judgment comes against the backdrop of continuing violations of health and safety norms for workers in thermal power plants and the absence of any mechanism to ensure compensation for victims of occupational health disorders. At present, blatant violations of the Supreme Court’s interim order in 2008 directing thermal power stations to ensure the safety of workers continue to take place.

A committee of experts was appointed as per the orders of the court by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), Ahmedabad, to monitor the health and safety of workers and make recommendations. The committee, which submitted its report in 2011, failed to capture the ground reality of workers suffering from occupational diseases and monitor in any substantial sense the medical facilities and compensation available to such workers. While the NIOH report did not record any specific instances of occupational health disorders in 109 thermal power plants across the country, other independent surveys as well as information from government sources themselves mention several such cases.

In response to a Right to Information (RTI) application, Gujarat’s Department of Industrial Safety and Health (DISH) stated in January 2013 that there were 128 cases of work-related diseases in seven power plants in the State. It was also stated that no compensation had been paid under the provisions of the Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923. In the petition filed in 2005, the Ahmedabad-based Occupational Health and Safety Association, the original petitioner in the case, outlined the high prevalence of silicosis, fibrosis, pneumonoconiosis, tuberculosis and other lung diseases among workers in thermal power stations. It also said that workers were subjected to high levels of sound and noise pollution that led to deafness. The high level of heat and dust combined with the noise resulted in high blood pressure and stress, leading to cardiac arrests.

Raghunath Manwar of the association said: “Workers continue to suffer from serious health hazards in the absence of a robust monitoring mechanism to ensure their safety and health in about 130 coal-based thermal power plants across the country. The apex court has only directed the respective High Courts to examine the issue with help from the State governments and the thermal power plants. A committee appointed as per the instructions of the court earlier did not do much by way of identifying cases where regulations were not being followed or relief was not provided to workers.”

At present, the health and safety concerns of workers in coal-based thermal power plants are governed by the Factories Act, 1948; the Fatal Accidents Act, 1963; and the Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923. Although there is a legal framework for periodic medical check-ups, medical facilities and compensation for affected workers, there is no body to monitor its implementation.

In the 2008 interim order, the Supreme Court directed the Ministry of Labour to ensure that the suggestions made by the petitioner for the welfare of workers were properly implemented by the Centre and the State governments. The suggestions included comprehensive medical check-ups at all coal-fired thermal power stations on a yearly basis, free medical treatment for all workmen suffering from occupational disease, compensation in accordance with the Workmen’s Compensation Act, provision of modern protective equipment as recommended by an expert body in consultation with trade unions, and strict measures for the control of dust, heat, noise and vibration, to be recommended by the NIOH. The court also ordered the appointment of a committee of experts by the NIOH, including trade union representatives and health and safety non-governmental organisations (NGOs), to look into the issues of health and safety of workers.

The ground reality is a far cry from any of these recommendations. This is revealed amply in the replies received to RTI queries in January 2013 from the DISH of the Government of Gujarat, which provide the details of occupational diseases among workers in thermal power plants in the past five years. The replies provide details of occupational diseases in seven thermal power stations across Gujarat: Gandhinagar, Vanakbori-Nadiad, Utaran-Surat, Dhuvaran-Anand, Ukai-Tapi, KLTPS-Panandhro, and Sikka-Jamnagar.

They highlight the sorry state of affairs, especially of contract workers. None of the plants were found to provide personal protective equipment or medical treatment to contract workers or contractors. As per the information provided by the DISH itself, there were a total of 6,525 contract workers and 250 contractors working in these plants during the period for which information was requested. In the Gandhinagar thermal power station, the health records of workers were not available.

Several cases of occupational diseases, including skin disease, asthma and deafness caused by exposure to noise, were recorded in these plants. There were 51 such cases in Gandhinagar, 14 in Dhuvaran-Anand, and 53 in Ukai-Tapi. In the Ukai-Tapi thermal power plant, no compensation was paid to the victims of occupational diseases as mandated under the guidelines approved by the Supreme Court.

In their final submissions in the Supreme Court on January 15, the petitioners highlighted the plight of contract workers suffering from diseases: “Contract workers, who are approximately 50 per cent of the workforce, have been excluded from medical examination by the thermal power stations on the pretext that, in any case, the contractors provide the contract workers with medical facilities. This is contrary to the Supreme Court order which requires all workers to undergo a comprehensive and free medical examination.”

Even in the case of permanent workers, medical check-ups were carried out only in the case of “targeted” workers, who were perceived to be susceptible to occupational diseases whereas the Supreme Court guidelines required comprehensive medical check-up for all workers. In the Gandhinagar thermal power station, X-rays were taken only of “targeted” employees every six months. Also, audiometry, optical tests and height, blood and urine tests were carried out only for “targeted” workers every six months. In Utaran-Surat, employees were not X-rayed. The thermal power plant at Sikka-Jamnagar took X-rays only where indicated.

Lackadaisical attitude

It is important to note here that the Union government had accepted the recommendations of the Supreme Court with respect to the occupational health and safety of the workers. In 2008, the Centre stated that the recommendations were broadly covered under various enactments and action would be taken for effective implementation of the relevant laws. However, the information obtained about the status of workers in the thermal power plants in Gujarat reveals that the ground reality is very different.

Also, the Government of India later placed a report prepared by the NIOH, titled “Environment, Health and Safety Issues in Coal Fired Thermal Power Plants in 2011”. Also, a status report along with an affidavit, was filed by the Union of India, which showed that there was full compliance with the court orders. Colin Gonsalves, arguing for the petitioners, had then pointed out some serious flaws in the report itself.

He stated that urgent steps should be taken to ensure the health and safety of workers through comprehensive and timely medical examinations, follow-up treatment and compensation for serious occupational diseases. These aspects were completely overlooked by the committee while preparing the report.

In a detailed submission on January 15, the petitioners pointed out the serious shortcomings of the report, which also highlight the lackadaisical attitude of the government towards the issue. The petitioners, in their counter-affidavit, stated that the committee visited only one thermal power plant, in Rihand in Gujarat, while conducting its study. Though the committee was mandated to involve trade union leaders and NGOs working in the area of health and occupational safety, the report states that they could not be taken on board ultimately owing to lack of funds. The only NGO associated with the committee was the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, Ahmedabad, which does not specialise in the area of health and safety.

Also, according to the minutes of the meeting of the committee, the only trade union involved was the Patna branch of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). Its representative participated in two of 11 meetings of the committee.

None of these reports—the NIOH’s or the government’s status report—provide any details of workers who were medically examined, those who were suffering from occupational health and safety diseases and accidents, the medical facilities extended to workers suffering from such diseases and accidents, and so on. The NIOH report concluded that there was not a single instance of occupational health and safety diseases in any of the 109 thermal power stations in the country.