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India’s Occupational Health: A long neglected issue

Even though occupational health risks are still a low priority in comparison with the other health services, the very existence of policies on these issues is a positive sign.

By Swati Saxena
Updated on :
India’s Occupational Health: A long neglected issue
Hand writing occupational health

Delhi has reached peak pollution levels. Clouds of dust and smog have come and settled in the city making it akin to a ‘dust bowl’. Public health experts say that it is equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes per day. According to meteorologists, this layer of dust traps heat, sending temperatures over 40C. Doctors have advised patients to stay indoors as much as they can. Delhi is reporting high cancer rates amongst the young and non-smokers. Children are particularly vulnerable. Air, something that most of the people had taken for granted has now started affecting them in obvious physical ways – watering eyes, skin irritation, moderate to severe breathing problems and host of long-term ailments that might manifest in terms of cancers or CVDs.

Exposure to chemicals in daily life should make us think about costs of urban living and work. More importantly, it should bring to the fore long-neglected issue of occupational health that has plagued India’s workers for decades. India as one of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world with rapid industrialization has resulted in dramatic increase in occupational hazards and occupational morbidity. Yet awareness about this is lacking. Also, data only exists only in fragmented reporting system like hospital records, worker’s compensation claims, cancer registry records, workplace records, surveys and Sentinel reports to estimate morbidity and mortality and these are not exhaustive or reliable. Also while work-related injuries and fatalities are easy to identify, a long latency period of chronic diseases like cancer make it difficult to establish whether the condition is work-related.

Children employed illegally in factories are particularly vulnerable. Children employed in carpet weaving in Jaipur city provided evidence of acute respiratory problems compared to other non-working children living in the same community. Children employed in leather factories were constantly exposed to chemicals of glue and solvents in the industry. A sore throat, dizziness, methemoglobinemia, anaemia are other common effects of ingestion or inhalation of chlorate dust in factories. Inhalation of sulphur dust causes respiratory infections, asthma, eye infections, and other chronic lung diseases. Studies have shown that 73 per cent of the lock factory workers in Aligarh suffer from respiratory tract problems, and among the tannery workers in Kanpur industrial slums, occupational morbidity was recorded as 28 per cent. An elevated level of nicotine was observed in the urine samples of tobacco workers and was causing several health problems.

Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has a scheme called ‘National Programme for Control and Treatment of Occupational Diseases’ to address 17 million occupational non-fatal injuries (17% of the world) and 45,000 fatal injuries (45% of the total deaths due to occupational injuries in the world) that occur each year. Following research projects are in the pipeline – 1. Prevention, control and treatment of silicosis and silicotuberculosis in agate Industry. 2. Occupational health problems of tobacco harvesters and their prevention. 3. Hazardous process and chemicals, database generation, documentation, and information dissemination. Ministry of Labour and Employment also has a ‘National Policy on Safety, Health and Environment at Workplace’ that defines its purpose as ‘not only to eliminate the incidence of work-related injuries, diseases, fatalities, disaster and loss of national assets and ensuring achievement of a high level of occupational safety, health and environment performance through proactive approaches but also to enhance the well-being of the employee and society, at large.’ It aims to reduce work-related injuries and improve the comprehensiveness of data while improving safety, health and environment at the workplace.

Even though occupational health risks are still a low priority in comparison with the other health services, the very existence of policies on these issues is a positive sign. Also, there is evidence that in the organised public sector where such policies are enforced, the risks reduce considerably. For instance, pooled analyses from five units of the department of atomic energy (public sector) show that workers in radiation units are not at an extra risk of cancer than the workers in non-radiation units.

The challenge in India is always enforcement, especially in the private or the vast unregulated informal sector, especially when it comes to child labour and child safety at the workplace. Also, some hazardous substances like asbestos will require a complete ban because no safety measures in the workplace will ensure complete avoidance from its harm.

Most successful economies have demonstrated that workplaces designed according to good principles of occupational health, safety and ergonomics are also the most sustainable and productive. Furthermore, wide experience from countries shows that a healthy economy, high quality of products or services and long-term productivity are difficult to achieve in poor working conditions with workers who are exposed to health and safety hazards. Therefore while there is no denying that good occupational health is a desirable goal in itself, but necessary if the economic development is to be made sustainable and production more efficient.

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