Playing with safety in factories

Playing with safety in factories

Representative image/iStock

Workplace hazards are on the rise post-independence as the workplaces grew more advanced and their reliance on heavy and sophisticated machinery and chemicals to produce goods increased.

In view of the rising trend of industrial accidents in the country, in 1962, during the 22nd Labour Ministers’ conference, a decision to convene a conference on “Safety in Factories” was considered. Along with it, the setting up of the National Safety Council to conduct a campaign on accident prevention was also considered.

Thus, the National Safety Council was set up on March 4, 1966. The National Safety Day is observed on March 4 because it marks the foundation of the National Safety Council and the first National Safety Campaign was launched in 1972. It has since been organised every year. 

The campaign is now entering its 49th year, with its theme “Enhance safety and health by use of advanced technologies.” It has grown into a major national campaign widely celebrated by industry, trade unions, government departments, regulatory agencies etc.

In spite of all this, tragic stories associated with industrial accidents have made frequent headlines in print and electronic media. These include the blast which killed 13 people and injuring 72 in a chemical unit in Maharashtra, the fire accident which killed four at the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation facility near Mumbai and the massive blaze which killed 43 people in a paper products and purses manufacturing unit in north Delhi.

These devastating accidents have taken place even though India currently has 13 labour laws dealing with the safety, and health and working conditions of workers in various industries. In 2018, the Union government proposed a Bill to merge these 13 laws into a single labour code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions.

But could an amalgamation of well-intentioned laws on paper help bring down the number of industrial accidents on the ground? Unless the norms laid down by the law are followed and enforced effectively, industrial accidents cannot be brought down.

In many states, the effective implementation of labour laws is compounded by a shortage of inspection staff. A British Safety Council study found that India has just one inspector for every 506 registered factories. 

This is grossly due to the decision of the government, which unveiled labour reforms by partially dismantling the factory inspection by Factory Inspectorate, which is perceived by industries to be arbitrary and corrupt.

This has led to the states opting for wrong solutions such as ‘self-certification’, which go against the International Labour Organisation (ILO) norms. This is something the government has been supportive of. Also, since we are attracting ILO’s attention, there’s little logic in persisting with self-certification. 

The state governments are doing this in a competitive manner for two reasons — to project a reform-oriented image to investors, and to achieve a better score on the index of Ease of Doing Business initiated by the Centre. 

The factory inspectors are supposed to visit only the factories which are chosen by the random computer system. And hence, many factories remain uninspected by them and violations of safety codes remains unnoticed. 

Violating labour laws

It was also observed that the restriction on factory safety inspection was a key contributor to the loss of life and property, as both establishments and employers violate labour laws, and health and safety provisions with impunity.

Safe work is one of the fundamental rights of the workers which ensure safety and health for everyone at work preventing hazards and risks. Employers have a legal compulsion to ensure that hazards in the workplace are eliminated, minimised, or controlled in such a way that work accidents are avoided. 

In the absence of factory inspection, employers have a free hand to pursue commercial interests at the cost of labour rights and safety. The suffering caused by such accidents and illnesses to workers and their families is incalculable. 

In economic terms, the ILO has estimated that 4% of the world’s annual GDP is lost as a consequence of occupational diseases and accidents. Besides, employers face costly early retirements, loss of skilled staff, absenteeism and high insurance premiums due to work-related accidents and diseases. 

It should be remembered that non-adherence to the stipulated safety standards can only be detected by factory inspections and if that system is stopped, then industries may witness disasters. Visits by inspectors are mostly perfunctory. If somebody is corrupt, catch them and punish them severely, but the practice of stoppage of factory inspection should be seen as a step to promote more industrial accidents. 

Is it a brilliant idea to burn a house to kill a rat? The inspection of factories, to ensure safety and health for everyone at work preventing hazards and risks, should not be suspended. We have to find suitable alternatives, that is, if the laws are obsolete, we need to change these laws and if the factory inspection procedures are not user-friendly, reform the inspection procedures.

(The writer is former Deputy Director of Boilers, Government of Karnataka)

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