Print edition : July 07, 2001
The intervention of trade unions is the best way of preventing accidents and ensuring safety at the workplace.

A BHOPAL A DAY - III Two previous articles in this series sought to expose the lack of attention given to workers' safety and health in India. This concluding one tries to examine the reasons for the neglect and sets out an agenda for action.

MORE than one lakh workers die every year in accidents at work, which is equivalent to a Bhopal gas disaster every month. As many as 20 lakh more people may die of occupational diseases - the true figure is unknown. The extent of occupational diseases is massive but unrecognised. India faces both diseases found in industrial hygiene textbooks in the United Kingdom in the 1930s and new hazards such as pesticides.

It is up to the mangements, which control workplaces, to take primary responsibility to ensure that the workplace is safe. - M.MOORTHY

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? The favourite culprit is the victim. Workers are ignorant. They do not follow the instructions of their wise managers. They do not wear the protective equipment given to them, but sell it... These are among the reasons advanced. There is a name for this approach - "the careless worker" approach.

A few of these arguments are examined here. The previous article (Frontline, July 6) described how Coal India purchased self-rescuers, designed to save miners in case of a fire underground. The items bought by Coal India were useless and would not have protected a miner for one minute. They were in fact Chinese copies of the proper self-rescuer. A union safety expert protested, Coal India took no action.

When the Inspectorate of Docks Safety tested some nose pads issued at Mormugao Port, it found that they had an efficiency of only 35 per cent filtration, against the minimum requirement of 98.5 per cent.

Workers know that most equipment given to them is not for their protection; they know it is only an eyewash. It will not in fact protect them. So why wear it? Moreover, the best health and safety practice, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), is to follow a "hierarchy of control":

(a) eliminate the risk, (b) control the risk at source, (c) minimise the risk by means that include design of safe working systems, and (d) only if all the above do not work, issue protective equipment.

Workers are not to blame for the majority of accidents. The real culprit is the management. The management controls the workplace, decides the product and controls the work process. It is up to the management to take primary responsibility to ensure that the workplace is safe.

In the U.K., the safety inspectorate reckons that 90 per cent of accidents are preventable; and 70 per cent are caused by the failure of the management.

Fire precautions

In the case of fires, one of the most common hazards in factories, one can see the reality. The Loss Prevention Association of India, which is sponsored by the general insurance companies, analysed 100 instances of fire in textile factories. It found that just over 40 per cent were caused by smoking materials - presumably these fires could be blamed on the workers, but the rest were not the responsibility of the workers in any way.

Look at the reasons why fires spread, which is a more important indicator. It was found that 89 per cent of the causes related to matters under the control of the management. The remaining 11 per cent were linked to the slow response of the fire service.

One of the problems identified was the non-availability of fire-fighting equipment in factories - 72 per cent of the incidents of fire spread for this reason. This is a basic, low-cost precaution and a matter that is entirely in the hands of management. Seven out of 10 textile factories do not have adequate fire-fighting equipment.

A human right

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work... (Article 23)

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (India ratified this in 1979) expands this a little: "The states that are parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work which ensure in particular:... (b) safe and healthy working conditions"(Article 7).

Health and safety is also mentioned in the Indian Constitution as one of the Directive Principles of State Policy:

No. 42. Provision of just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief - The state shall make provisions for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief.

Trade unions must demand that physical hazards are removed or reduced through risk assessment involving workers. - SUNIL MALHOTRA/REUTERS

Safety and health at work is thus clearly a human right. You would not know it. Human rights groups have ignored the problem.

Government inaction

Both the Union and State governments have a role to play in improving industrial safety, which they neglect. The Union government should lay down a framework of legislation and the State governments should make more detailed rules. Enforcement of the Factories Act, construction laws and safety in minor ports are the responsibility of the State governments. The Union government is wholly responsible for safety in mining and at major ports.

The Union government also has an obligation (under the ILO Constitution) to lay before Parliament texts of instruments agreed at International Labour Conferences. It has failed to do this since 1990; a number of ILO Conventions adopted in that period dealt with health and safety.

None of the major ILO Conventions dealing with occupational safety and health (OSH) has been ratified. The government was provided with new, comprehensive draft legislation on health and safety by an ILO mission after the Bhopal tragedy. However, the government tinkered with the Factories Act, ignoring other industries and the unorganised sector, where most accidents take place. In fact, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forests, since the Bhopal disaster of 1984 there have been more than 100 instances of gas leaks in industries, which have caused more than 7,000 deaths.

Another indicator of the government's low level of concern for safety and health is the attention given to this aspect in the proceedings of the Indian Labour Conference. In its 37 sessions, there has been not a single proper discussion about safety and health at work.

Trade Unions and safety

In the first article in this series (Frontline, June 22, 2001), work was compared to a new disease. If a new disease was discovered killing people in large numbers, donors would provide massive funding. If a non-governmental organisation (NGO) - or to use the now fashionable term, a civil society organisation - could cut the death roll by 50 per cent, it would be overwhelmed with money. Trade unions are civil society organisations, and they are the best way of preventing accidents at work.

Safety and health at work is an area in which unions have a comparative advantage. According to studies, workers in a workplace without a recognised trade union have double the chance of meeting with an accident(British Journal of Industrial Relations, June 1995).

This is before a union takes any steps to improve safety. The simple fact of union membership means that workers are more confident about refusing to undertake dangerous work. When unions actually start to get involved in safety, much greater improvements are possible. Unions are the main defence the workers have against injury, death or disease. One paper, based on extensive research in the U.K., has calculated that where a union is active on safety issues, the unionised workplace could be 15 times safer than a non-unionised workplace.

Trade unions in India have tended to neglect safety and health in the past. When a Charter of Demands was drawn up, safety and health was omitted except for demands for extra allowances for hazardous work, rather than making work safe. This is much less common now, and unions take up the issue of safety in earnest.

The All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) has issued good guidelines to its affiliates on how to include safety in their Charter of Demands. The Indian National Mineworkers Federation, affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), now has a comprehensive policy and has designed - though not yet fully implemented - a safety structure stretching from the mine level up to the national level.

Safety and health - a development issue?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 3 per cent of the global burden of disease is caused by preventable injuries and exposure to toxic substances, noise and hazardous work patterns.

The cost of deaths, injuries and disease caused by work is perhaps 4 per cent of gross national product (GNP) in developed countries, according to the ILO. According to the European Agency for Safety and Health, the loss to GNP is in the range of 2.6 per cent to 3.8 per cent.

It seems reasonable, then, to estimate the cost of death, injuries and disease at work in India at $ 12 billion annually. It must be again stressed that most of this can be avoided through resort to basic precautionary measures.

Occupational accidents and ill-health must be a major cause of poverty. A very small number of workers in the organised sector receive compensation for accidents. If a worker is killed, the family may receive some compensation and, where the union demands it, a family member may get a job. But the vast majority of workers or their families receive no compensation.

Clearly, workplace-related accidents and diseases place a huge, preventable burden on poor people and the country. Occupational safety and health is a developmental issue. But where is the donor community?

Arguably, OSH is as serious a public health issue as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) but attracts no donor support. As aid agencies generally do not employ trade union, labour or safety specialists, they do not have on their staff persons who can advise them in this area. There is perhaps a vague assumption among aid workers that OSH is a problem of mines and big factories, and of course most poor people in India do not work in such places. They work on the land or in small workshops.

Unfortunately, this view is wrong. Agricultural work is more than twice as dangerous as factory work, according to the ILO. This estimate may be too low. The average fatality rate in agriculture in the European Union (E.U.) is 14 per 100,000, only slightly less than that in construction. For manufacturing it is 4.6 per 100,000.

Accident rates are higher in small-scale workshops than in large factories - the fatal injury rate in the U.K. is 1.7 per 100,000 in small manufacturing workplaces, compared to 0.8 per 100,000 in larger workplaces. The amputation rates are of a similar order. This finding seems consistent across developed countries.

There is a deeper, ideological reason why the aid community ignores safety and health. It is a workplace issue, and aid organisations generally avoid the area of work relations and the labour process. Most agencies are now committed, at least on paper, to the idea of empowering poor people and to a rights-based approach. Empowerment and the realisation of the rights at work of poor people are possible only through trade unions. This is an extremely uncomfortable territory for aid organisations which are, in practice, anti-trade union.

One organisation, of course, does recognise the importance of safety and health - the ILO. However, it is not a donor, but is essentially an implementing agency. It relies on donors to provide funds for projects. The ILO has not had a major project dealing with safety and health at work in India since 1994; it has only been able to fund a few workshops.

Saving workers' lives

What can be done to change the scenario described in this and the preceding two articles? Nothing much will happen to improve safety and health unless workers act, at the level of the enterprise and at national and State levels in order to change policy. After all, one of the most fashionable concepts in development is empowerment. People spend at least one-third of their lives at work, and the only practical way to get some control over this important part of their life is by acting together in concert - by joining a trade union.

Trade unions should include safety as a bargaining issue in their charter of demands. This does not mean demanding compensation for dust, noise or heat. It means demanding that physical hazards are removed or reduced through risk assessment involving workers. Safety is as important as wages, dearness allowance or bonus. Safety should not be dropped from the final settlement.

Including safety in the collective bargaining agenda must go hand in hand with organising safety structures within the union. In particular, active members must take the time and trouble to go around the workplace, talking to workers about health problems and hazards. There are never going to be enough government inspectors, which is why unions in many countries now have "safety representatives" backed by legal authority. In India, only the mining industry has Workmen's Inspectors. Unfortunately, they are selected by the management, on the advice of the union. They are not directly elected by workers, and if they produce critical reports they are subjected to harassment by mine managers.

Trade unions must lobby hard for a comprehensive piece of safety legislation and for its enforcement. Until then they must use the legal system in the same way as the environmental movement has. State Pollution Control Boards were useless institutions until the courts began getting involved through Public Interest Litigation. It should be worth following a similar approach with State-level Factory Inspectorates. There are a few activists and labour-oriented NGOs that have done some good work. If unions took up safety in earnest, a lot can be done.

* A new legal framework is required. The production, import or use of asbestos in any form must be banned.

* The "dirty dozen" pesticides - the most harmful and persistent ones - must be banned. It is no good permitting any exclusions, because the scope of these will in practice mean the ban does not work. For example, DDT (dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane)is supposed to be used only for malaria control. But it "leaks" and is used elsewhere. This ban requires no new legislation. Action can be taken under the Insecticides Act.

* A number of ILO conventions could be swiftly ratified. These provide readymade standards for specific industries.

* A national tripartite body could go into the whole situation concerning safety at work and come out with new legislation, after taking the advice of the ILO.

It is no accident that workers' health and safety is ignored in India. The ruling elite are just not interested. They think the workplace is the place of workers to toil, just as it is the lot of workers' children to work - the real reason why child labour persists. Workers have established a few islands of comparatively decent treatment in the organised sector. These are under threat now from labour law reform and privatisation.

These articles have not covered many industries and not touched on the role of the States. They have merely attempted to show that there is a huge problem, largely unrecognised by any of the agencies that should be involved. More research is needed. Any suggestions or responses would be welcome.


India Labour Conference Conclusions, Manak, New Delhi, 1998.

Adam Seth Lethwin, Trade Unions and Industrial Injury in Great Britain, London School of Economics, August 2000.

Health and Safety Executive - New research confirms that smaller workplaces can carry bigger risks, press release, February 4, 1999.

Economic impact of OSH in the member-states of the European Union, Bilbao, 1999.

Stirling Smith spent many years working in India, and was a Chief Technical Advisor on occupational safety, health and environment for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in New Delhi, 1992-1994. He is Director, Labour and Society International, which campaigns for human rights at work.

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