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Safety First

You have to conclude that safety at work is a neglected issue and, for many Indians, is a massive risk

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On the public board on which I sit in London, the first item reported by the (Indian origin) CEO each meeting is health and safety.  Reducing accidents (both at work and commuting to and from work) is one of the CEO’s measured annual objectives.  A significant proportion of the capital expenditure budget goes on safety items.

In twenty years on Indian boards, I do not recall a serious discussion on safety, except after a particularly terrible accident.  Health and safety is just not the priority in India that is elsewhere.

I tried to find data on accident rates in Indian business but could discover no complete and current data set.  The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation put up data on fatal and non-fatal accidents and incidence rates up to 2013.  This shows a very positive improving trend since 2000, to 0.67 accidents per 1,000 workers in factories.  However, this still included 494 deaths. Oddly, there is no more recent data.

The Ministry does have some data on accidents in its Statistical Yearbook of India 2016.  This reports that in 2014 there were 797 deaths in India caused by machine or factory accidents, plus a further 210 deaths in mines and quarries. These numbers were dwarfed by the 169,107 Indians who died in road accidents, 19,503 who died in fires and 29,903 who drowned.  

The ILO comparative dataset on occupational injury has Indian numbers only until 2007.  At that point, the reported rate of non-fatal accidents per 100,000 workers in India, at 325, was quite good by international standards.  However, the number of fatalities (116.8 per 100,000 workers) was the highest of any reporting country.  Such data looks odd and is entirely outdated.

Essentially, we do not seem to have any reliable and current data on occupational health and safety in India, except probably for fatalities.  Further, any data sets that do exist cover organised factories, mines and construction sites, but not the unorganised sector where 90 per cent of Indians work.  You have to conclude that safety at work is a neglected issue and, for many Indians, is a massive risk.

India is not, however, backward in regulating for safety.  There are 16 laws that cover occupational health and safety, all with their own compliance requirements and inspectorates.  The Factories Act 1948 (as amended) puts personal and indeed criminal liability on directors, most especially the occupier of a site, for accidents.

Any operator of a factory has further armies of inspectors to contend with, such as for fire and electrical risks. Here is yet another example of how Indian business is overly and wrongly regulated.  What is needed from government on safety is not so much deregulation but rather smart, effective and appropriate regulation.  Not to mention reliable and timely statistics.

Yet despite this battery of regulations and onerous sanctions, way too many accidents and deaths occur at work in India.  Management and boards are not focused on safety as a priority issue.  Something is clearly akilter.
Whatever the regulation, however, the private sector in India needs to take a lead in making safety at work a priority issue.  Returning our colleagues safely to their families each evening is simply the right thing to do.

 But reducing accidents clearly also makes a direct contribution to productivity and profit.  Damage to life and limb is not as cheap as it might appear.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Alan Rosling

The author is an entrepreneur and strategic adviser. He co-founded Kiran Energy and was earlier an Executive Director of Tata Sons. He was a Special Advisor to the British Prime Minister during 1991-93. He now lives in Hong Kong but is frequently in India. He is the author of Boom Country? the New Wave of Indian Enterprise.

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