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Grossly underestimated, 'grim challenge' of occupational accidents in India

By Bharat Dogra* 

Accidents are a leading cause of human distress. However most discussion has been concentrated on road accidents while occupational accidents which affect mostly the working class have received comparatively much lesser attention. This should not lead to neglect of the very heavy price that workers have to pay in terms of serious injuries or even loss of life caused by accidents taking place at workplace ( whether industries or mines, forests or farms).
In recent years, significant research has led to a better understanding of the seriousness of occupational safety issues. Dr Jorma Saari, writing in the Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety, has provided us an overview of the seriousness of occupational accidents. 
According to International Labour Office statistics, Dr Saari writes: “120 million occupational accidents occur annually at workplaces worldwide. Of these 2,10,000 are fatal accidents. Every day, more than 500 men or women do not come home because they were killed by accidents at work.”
More than the over 2 lakh mortalities presented by this data, it is the number of occupational injuries which is shockingly high. Given the fact that 120 million occupational accidents take place in a year, the number of injuries is likely to be massive indeed. This means over 3 lakh occupational accidents per day.
Gordon S Smith and Mark A Veazle write in a paper titled ‘Principles of Prevention, the Public Health Approach to Reducing Injuries in the Workplace’: 
“As a health problem, injuries are the leading cause of premature death (i.e. before age 65)- in most countries... One out of three nonfatal injuries and one out of six fatal injuries to working-age persons in the United States occur on the job. Similar patterns apply in most of the developed countries. In middle and low-income countries, a rapid and relatively unregulated pace of industrialization may result in a nearly global pandemic of occupational injuries.”
If occupational accident rate in India is assumed to be the same as in the world, then there are likely to be about 35,000 fatalities and about 20 million occupational accidents in India in one year. 
However, there is a lot of evidence that occupational accident and fatality rate may be higher In India due to shockingly poor safety conditions in many factories, mines, construction sites, forests and farms in India. However, occupational accidents, fatalities and injuries are very seriously underestimated in official data in India.
Official statistics suggest there were 4,275 documented fatalities in Indian factories between 2010 and 2012. Analysts say that even by the most conservative estimate, the actual number could be at least ten times higher if the accidents in the unorganized manufacturing sector are counted. In a 2005 report, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that there could be 40,000 industrial fatalities in India in an average year.
The officially estimated 163 mining fatalities in 2013 may be grossly underestimated. Industry workers, including senior officers employed by the world’s largest coal miner, state owned Coal India Ltd., concede that official numbers could be much lower than the actual deaths that take place deep inside the mines, says an official source.
India is estimated to have 569 coal mines, 67 oil and gas mines, 1770 non-coal (big) mines and over one lakh small mines. Smaller stone mines and attached crushers have very poor working conditions. The total number of annual fatalities in all mines, quarries and attached crushers are likely to be in thousands, not hundreds.
According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) there were 130 chemical accidents during the decade 2003-2013 leading to 259 deaths and 563 serious injuries. In addition there were many smaller accidents/ incidents.
A study of the largest ship-breaking yard at Alang has found that the fatality rate among workers was very high. Commissioned by the National Human Rights Commission and conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, the study finds shocking lack of enforcement of safety regulations and highly inadequate health facilities.
In agriculture, accidents are likely to have increased significantly with the rapid mechanization as well as an increase in the use of pesticides, herbicides etc. Thresher accidents have snatched away the limbs of many farmers and farm workers. As several high risk units are pushed towards rural areas, the risk of occupational accidents in rural areas increases.
Dr Reinald Skiba writes in a paper titled ‘Theoretical Principles of Safety’:
“Mechanization and automation have advanced considerably in recent years. It may appear that the causes of many accidents have shifted from human error to those related to the maintenance of and interface with automated processes. 
"However, these positive consequences of technology are counterposed to other, negative ones, particularly the increase in psychological strains and corresponding ergonomic physical demands on workers in automated plants due to the increased attention and responsibility required for overseeing the automated operations process, impersonal working environment and monotony of work. These strains and corresponding demands increase the occurrence of accidents and can be harmful to health.”
Sometimes increasing modernisation and automation are per se equated with improved safety, but this may not always be true. As Dr Saari points out, in aviation and other highly engineered and automated systems, increased automation may not necessarily result in improved safety. For example, “operators may not get enough practice to maintain their skills in highly automated systems. When they are required to intervene, they may not have the necessary competence or ability.”
Giving another example of automation in paper industry, Dr Saari says that some paper manufacturers have indicated that younger employees do not understand the functions of a paper machine as well as the older employees. To quote:
“The new automated machines are operated from control rooms through computer keyboards and screens. The operators do not know the exact location of each component of the machine they operate. Therefore they may bring a component into a state which, for example, causes a hazard to the maintenance people in the vicinity.”
While protective devices are certainly needed, these need to be accompanied by safety alertness on the part of workers and supervisors. An example provided by Dr Saari is of ‘kickback guards’ provided to power saw operators to protect them from the many fatalities that were caused when the chain-saw blades suddenly hit very hard targets. This protective device helped to prevent hundreds of fatalities and serious injuries.
When Sweden implemented regulations requiring the kickback guards, the number of power saw injuries went down from 2600 in 1971 to 1700 in 1972 (in just one year). However with the passage of time, the knowledge about the availability of the protection provided by the kickback guard made workers less careful and they exposed themselves more often to kickbacks, again resulting in an overall increase in injuries.
The conclusion which Dr Saari draws from these examples is extremely important: “A technical improvement in the machinery or controls without simultaneous improvement in operators’ skills, knowledge and values may not result in improved safety.”
Dr Saari has summarized the potential as the problems of preventing future accidents by learning from previous ones. Dr Saari writes:
“Accident prevention has been traditionally based on learning from accidents and near accidents (near misses). By investigating every incident, we learn about causes and can take action towards mitigating or removing the causes. The problem is that we have not been able to develop, in the absence of sufficiently good theories, investigation methods which would bring up all the relevant factors for prevention. 
"An investigation may give a fairly good picture about the causes. However, this picture is usually relevant only for the specific case investigated. There may be conditions and factors which contributed to the accident whose connections the investigators do not recognize or understand. Generalizing from one accident to other situations bears a degree of risk.”
Study finds shocking lack of enforcement of safety regulations and highly inadequate health facilities in Alang
Reinald Skiba writes in paper titled ‘Theoretical Principles of Job Safety':
An accident (including those that entail injuries) is a sudden and unwanted event, caused by an outside influence, that causes harm to people and results from the interaction of people and objects… Almost every accident has multiple causes such as hazardous conditions, combinations of factors, courses of events, omission and so on. 
"For example, causes of an accident involving a burst boiler may include one or a combination of the following reasons: faulty materials in the boiler wall, inadequate training to ensure safe operations, failure of a pressure relief device, or violations of an operating procedure such as overheating. Without one or more of the deficiencies, an accident may not have happened.”
Skiba adds:
“In the final analysis every accident results from faulty conduct of people, because people are always at the end of the causal chain. For example, if faulty material is determined to be cause of a boiler bursting, then improper conduct existed either on the part of the builder, manufacturer, tester, installer or owner (e.g. corrosion due to inadequate maintenance). Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a technical failure or technical accident cause. The technology is only the intermediate link to the consequences of the improper conduct.”
Nevertheless, Skiba says:
“The normal division of causes into behavioural, technical and organisational is useful, because this points towards which group of people behaved improperly and also helps select the appropriate corrective measures.” Skiba adds, “Successful accident prevention consists of recognizing the causal chain that leads to an accident and breaking it, so that the accident can no longer occur.”
Anne-Marie Feyer and Ann M Williamson write in a paper titled ‘Human Factors in Accident Modeling’:
“Human factors are a major component of the causes of accidents in the workplace. Estimates of the actual extent of the involvement vary markedly, but a study in early 1980s of the causes of all work-related fatalities occurring in Australia over three years revealed that behavioural factors were involved in more than 90 per cent of fatal accidents.”
Gordon S Smith and Mark A Veazle write in their paper titled ‘Principles of Prevention: the Public Health Approach to Reducing Injuries in the Workplace’:
“The traditional practice of workplace safety usually focuses on minimizing risks and losses within a single company. Public Health practitioners engaged in occupational injury control are interested not only in individual worksites but also in improving the health status of populations in geographic areas that may be exposed to the hazards associated with multiple industries and occupations. Some events such as workplace fatalities may be rare at individual plants, but by studying all fatalities in a community, risk patterns and prevention policy may become evident.”
On the whole, Dr Saari says that we have made considerable progress in the area of predictive safety management:
“A number of techniques have been developed and have become routine for industrial safety and risk analysis. These techniques allow us to study industrial production plants systematically for the identification of potential hazards and to institute appropriate action before anything happens.”
Sweden, Finland, Japan and Germany have all reduced fatal occupational accidents by 60 to 70% since the mid-1970s. Several other countries also show similar progress.
This achievement, however, is still limited to a relatively few areas. In most places, including many parts of India, the challenge of occupational accidents remains very grim. Much remains to be done to make workplace safer for most workers, and also ensure that new risks do not make an already serious situation even more grim.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘A Day in 2071’, ‘Planet in Peril' and ‘Man over Machine'

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