What does it mean to be safe at work? Such a notion is multifaceted. The freedom from violence and harassment in the workplace, the freedom from exposure to infectious diseases and the freedom from vulnerability to accidents are among the components of workplace safety.
The era of COVID-19 means the world is witnessing a global dialogue on workplace safety. Workers on the front line run the risk of exposure to coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), which causes the disease COVID-19. In India, the call for workplace safety in medical settings has been palpable during the COVID crisis – from preventing violence against healthcare workers to ensuring the provision of vital personal protective equipment (PPE). The Government has acted, scaling up efforts to dispense PPE and enacting an ordinance to penalise perpetrators of violence against medicos.
If anything, it should not have required a pandemic to highlight why measures to provide for the safety of healthcare staff in their workplace are so important. In the example of violence against doctors, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) has indicated that 75 percent of the country’s workforce have, at some stage, been the target of some manner of abuse, violence, or harassment whilst on duty. In extreme cases, doctors on the job have been murdered.
Today marks the World Day for Safety and Health at Work – an observance which, as explained by the United Nations, “promotes the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases globally. It is an awareness-raising campaign intended to focus international attention on the magnitude of the problem and on how promoting and creating a safety and health culture can help reduce the number of work-related deaths and injuries.”
The observance this year comes during the COVID-19 crisis. The UN notes that “recognising the great challenge that governments, employers, workers and whole societies are facing worldwide to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Day for Safety and Health at Work will focus on addressing the outbreak of infectious diseases at work, in particular, on the COVID-19 pandemic…Governments, employers, workers and their organisations face enormous challenges as they try to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and protect safety and health at work. Beyond the immediate crisis, there are also concerns about resuming activity in a manner that sustains progress made in suppressing transmission.”
A return to normalcy past the physical distancing measures being enacted – India’s wholesale lockdown a case in point – seems far-off. It is key to note that the push for workplace safety will be an important one. This is irrespective of whether we are living in a pandemic or not.
The death toll due to workplace accidents or workplace-related diseases numbers at more than 2.78 million workers globally according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). The ILO, which has observed World Day for Safety and Health at Work since 2003, also notes that more than 374 million non-fatal accidents occur at work. Improper workplace safety exacts an economic cost of 3.94 percent of the global gross domestic product yearly.
Indian workers are vulnerable. As reported by Health Issues India last year, “the implications of the figures presented from India — in one example reporting only 562 incidences of workplace diseases to the Indian government over the 2011-16 period — are up to interpretation. Believing these figures at face value would suggest India has some of the safest workplace environments in the world. A quick glance at other reports would indicate this is far from the truth.”
We cited data from the British Safety Council, whose investigations suggested eighty percent of India’s construction workers operate in unsafe working environments and that the death toll due to workplace injury and disease is likely to be twenty times that of the United Kingdom. The dearth of economic opportunity for swathes of India’s workforce, including those working in informal sectors, drives the uptake among vulnerable populations of professions which are unsafe and poorly-regulated. The British Safety Council research said “shockingly, there is only one factory inspector for 506 registered factories.”
One health complication Health Issues India has reported on at length is that of silicosis, an incurable disease of the lungs to which those employed in forms of heavy industry such as construction and mining are acutely at risk. Inhalation of respirable crystalline silica (RCS) particles causing irreversible damage to the lungs is often the result of exposure whilst on the job.
The burden of silicosis can devastate entire communities. States such as Rajasthan harbour so-called “villages of widows”, due to the number of people who have succumbed to the disease, leaving their families behind. At the national level, between three and ten million Indians are at risk of developing silicosis. 22,000 live with the disease in Rajasthan alone.
In the example of manual scavengers – a practice that is illegal but still relatively widespread – the conditions are dire and the risks are many. Fifty people lost their lives in India to manual scavenging in the first six months of 2019 alone. Health Issues India has noted the occupation “puts workers at a great deal of risk, not least because they often descend into sewers lacking proper protective equipment such as breathing equipment. Once in the sewers, workers are vulnerable to asphyxiating to death on toxic gases; developing life-threatening infections from open wounds owing to the septic environment; or sustaining fatal injuries because of the hazards.”
A 2010 study noted the following: “legislation on occupational health and safety has existed in India for several decades.” However, the “laws pertaining to health and safety of workers at workplaces have remained static. There is an upward swing in the number of accidental deaths and injuries and occupational diseases—but the figures reported are much lower than the actual figures. Specialised manpower and related infrastructure for dealing with health and safety aspects of workers and surrounding populations have not been developed as per the desired requirements.” In the decade since, workplace safety in India remains a concern.
The ILO outlines comprehensive measures to promote workplace safety in a thorough report issued around the World Day of Safety and Health at Work, which can be accessed here. It delves deeply into the manifold ramifications of the pandemic, from the job losses to which informal workers are especially vulnerable to the implications of working from home such as in terms of mental health to the exposure of those in frontline occupations to infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and the vital necessity of mitigating this exposure through appropriate action.
As Dagmar Walter, director of the ILO Office for India and Decent Work Team for South Asia, observed in a pieced published by The Hindustan Times last year, “it is critical that India establishes efficient Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) data collection systems to better understand the situation for effective interventions.” While, as Walter notes, “India has been strengthening national OSH policy frameworks for providing adequate protection to workers”, she adds that “a national action plan to promote OSH for all workers is now required. For effective enforcement, labour inspection systems need to be strengthened.
“Strong cooperation and information sharing among the authorities concerned with OSH should be promoted. OSH training and information activities for small enterprises and the unorganised sector needs to be enhanced. Training of medical doctors and health professionals on occupational disease diagnosis is necessary for early detection, treatment and compensation.”
Workplace safety will continue to be an issue of importance in a post-pandemic world. World Day of Safety and Health at Work is a critical reminder of this.