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BW Businessworld

Creaking Plants, Lax Regulations Make Indian Factories Death Traps

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As buildings go, factories have a certain presence. The distorted steel structures with twisted metallic innards, the dank storage areas, the enormous cooling towers, the whoosh of an assembly line, the hiss of the gas cutter, the burning steel furnaces -- all of them add up.

The various parts that make up modern industry -- if not properly attended to -- can turn into death traps.

Ideally, a water tight safety protocol backs these busy hives. Being an industrial employee in India alas is far from ideal. It is a deadly job. Safety protocols at too many factories are non-existent - life is on the line.

A series of recent accidents underline this risk starkly. The list of accidents is long and the toll seriously high. Five persons were killed on Saturday (28 June) and seven others injured when a blast triggered by a suspected gas leak took place in a ship being dismantled at the Alang ship-breaking yard in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat.

On 27th of June, 2014, an inferno following a blast at the GAIL pipeline in East Godaveri district of Andhra Pradesh killed 16 people and injured 15 others.

Gas leaks crept up unseen at the Bhilai steel plant on June 13 2014 killing 6 workers and injuring 40 more. 

On June 16, two engineers died of suspected gas leak at the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant. Earlier, on June 2, a blast at the Cordite Factory in Aruvankadu near Ooty injured eight persons.

On May 20, one person died and six other employees of the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) sustained burns after the steam pipeline exploded. 
Just ten days later, on May 30, four persons were killed in an explosion at a firecracker manufacturing unit in Coimbatore.

According to the data site, 576 people died in factory related industrial mishaps in 2011.

This figure may be an understatement as in its ground-breaking report on work conditions in 2005, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated as many as 40,000 fatalities in India on an average every year. Sources in the ILO maintain that the very nature of UN organised sector in India means that the actual number of injuries and deaths are vastly under-reported.

On paper, the various ministries have a labyrinth of laws so stringent it would appear that India aims to make the factory a workers’ paradise. Yet walk into a plant and you face the terrifying reality. There is no proverbial escape when disaster strikes.

The real issue is a combination of old plants and the lack of will to spend on industrial security. Says R Chakrapani, a senior consultant at RAMS Safety Consultants, a company that provides industrial safety services, “At the best of times, industrial safety is not on the top of the agenda when it comes to a business plan. In times of an industrial slowdown, this neglect is accentuated. India Inc. needs to wake up to putting in place safety protocols on a priority basis. Ironically over the long run these protocols actually save costs for the company from attracting better workforce to avoiding disastrous costs in case of accidents.”

The present spurt of accidents has many reasons but one underlying issue is lack of timely safety audits. Independent safety audits are not undertaken as per law by a majority of firms.

Agrees K S Ravichandran of the ILO India office, “While the Government of India in recent years have been promoting industrial safety through continuous campaigns and building the capacity of all the stakeholders, there is a serious need to prioritise the implementation of the above national policy  through a time-bound action plan in order to enhance the industrial safety. ”

Lack Of Oversight Capacity
While corruption endemic to such audits may be one of the main causes the capacity constraints on the part of auditors is also a major impediment.

The government departments concerned with industrial safety oversight are ill equipped. The main body for industrial safety in India is the Directorate General, Factory Advisory Service and Labour Institutes. However, this body is severely understaffed. It has only 129 technical officers of whom only 92 are engineers. Its technical staff beside the officer cadre comprises of 81 people. This staff strength simply is not enough for the mandate of this organisation.

In India, according to the working group industrial safety and health's report for the fifth five year plan, there are  69 coal mines, 67 oil and gas fields  and 1,770 non-coal mines in operation.  The report says that “The matter of serious concern is the occurrence of disasters at regular intervals in coal mines, mostly in underground mines and also in some of the metalliferous mines i.e. irons ore, soapstone and granite mines.”

In the coal mines and related industries in the state of Chhattisgarh alone, on an average, 100 deaths happen every year.

Dangerous industrial Clusters
In India there are entire industrial clusters where workers safety is brazenly ignored. These include the city of Sivakasi, which is India’s fire cracker hub. Here accidents are a way of life. A major explosion here in September 2012 killed 38 people mostly children who are employed to work in the factories. However, no lessons were apparently learned as two workers were killed in an explosion on June 26 2014. Since 2005, an estimated 100 people have died in industrial accidents in this town and despite repeated interventions by ILO and many non-governmental organisations, the situation continues to be the same.

Similarly dangerous is the Alang shipyard in Gujarat where more than 270 deaths have occurred over the last decade. In October 2012, 6 persons were killed in a fire at the shipyard. Again in March 2014, two workers were killed and three critically injured when a steel plate fell on them.

Despite being aware of the high levels of danger at specified industrial clusters, India’s safety regime has done little by the way of improving safety conditions.

As the Indian manufacturing sector looks to pick up steam on a priority basis, under the new government, India will do well to beef up its lax Industrial safety regime.  While the government-owned working group is aware of the problems, clearly much needs to be done in terms of funding regulators and carrying out timely  safety audits. Till this is taken up through financial intervention and political will, India will remain one of the most dangerous places for workers in the world. The legacy of the world's greatest industrial disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal that killed 4,000 people in a gas leak and an estimated 15,000 from its effect over the years, continues to castw a long shadow over the Indian manufacturing sector.