Why a lack of culture—not compliance—is the primary cause of India’s safety woes

Written and published by the British Safety Council, India on 17 August 2020.

Workplace safety regulations such as the Factories Act (1948), the Mines Act (1952), and the National Policy on Occupational Health have always existed in India. Employers do the bare minimum to meet these safety standards to avoid legal trouble. Similarly, employees, especially those engaged in blue-collar work, don’t give much importance to safety practices and are tolerant of unsafe working conditions. Thus, there is a noticeable apathy towards workplace safety from both the employers as well as the employees. Although there is legislation to ensure occupational safety and protect workers, ineffective and incomplete implementation is a major constraint due to the general cultural outlook towards workplace safety. Thus, there is a need to bring about a culture change to improve the safety standards at the workplace.

Read on to see how a lack of safety culture, and not compliance, has become the primary cause of India’s safety woes.

Preference for staying employed over staying safe

India is the land of the masses with the second largest population in the world. Unfortunately, a considerable portion of the working-age population is unemployed. Similarly, a huge portion of the employed workforce works in the unorganised sector, which accounts for nearly ninety per cent of the total working population. There is a visible competition within the workforce to find job opportunities, most of which is daily wage work. Thus, individuals looking for such work don’t prioritise occupational safety and health and are majorly concerned about finding employment. Also, employers working with such workers don’t implement safety practices at the workplace, as they might find it as an extra expenditure.

Additionally, most of the people in the blue-collared workforce are not highly educated. They are unaware of their rights regarding occupational health and safety. All these factors contribute to workplace safety taking a back seat when it comes to the blue-collar workers.

Prioritisation of productivity over safety

While multinational and large-scale enterprises are leading the cultural change towards a safe workplace, most small and medium enterprises barely meet minimum safety requirements. Employers in these segments prioritise productivity over worker safety. Employers might feel that employee productivity might get hampered when working with strict safety regulations and guidelines. For example, at construction sites, a substantial amount of time is lost in equipping and removing safety harnesses from employees. This leads to decreased productivity. Employers may avoid practising such measures if they feel that the employees are not at greater risk in carrying out work activities. This culture of undertaking safety measures only when absolutely necessary and based on assumptions is a major cause of accidents.

Shortage of trained OSH officers

There are around only 1000 qualified occupational health professionals in India. This number is obviously low and inadequate, considering the huge population of our country. Therefore, there is a huge gap in the demand and supply of occupational health safety specialists in India. This number is a huge cause of worry as according to a report, there are just five officials to inspect the 3270 boilers in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Having such few safety officers can take a toll not only on the health of the officers but also result in inefficiencies in safety inspection and operations.

This huge shortage of safety officials can be attributed to the fact that a small number of candidates undertake occupational health and safety courses to pursue a career in the field. Similarly, there are very few reputed, experienced, and reliable institutes that offer occupational safety and health courses. This shortage of institutes and candidates, and eventually, professionals, is due to the fact that occupational safety officers aren’t highly valued at organisations in India. For most organisations, employing a health and safety officer is an added operational expense, and a means to meet government regulations. Thus, a career as an occupational safety and health officer is not looked at as a lucrative career option by many individuals. There needs to be a change in perception among employers and employees regarding health and safety officers in order to bridge the demand and supply gap.

Lack of emphasis on OSH training

Occupational health and safety training is seen as an unnecessary expense by most organisations. If an organisation is functioning without any mishaps, the leaders don’t find it necessary to invest and implement in a safety training programme. It takes an unexpected accident leading to major financial losses compels such organisations to look for safety training providers. Therefore, a culture change needs to be brought to make organisations realise the importance of providing safety training to the employees. With training, you bring a culture change in the behaviour and outlook of the employees regarding workplace safety. British Safety Council offers behavioural safety consultancy services to help bring the culture change required at the workplace regarding safety starting with a thorough safety culture assessment. It can help improve safety standards by driving behavioural change in employees, which can result in higher productivity.

The attitude of Indian professionals, as well as leaders towards workplace safety, needs to change. As we have seen, just having rules and regulations won’t help. There must be a culture change to make organisations realise the importance of workplace safety. This culture change regarding workplace safety is slowly but surely coming in the Indian workplace. Multinational companies with strict adherence to safety rules are causing a shift in the attitude towards workplace safety. Similarly, individuals who have experienced the benefits of workplace safety practices are themselves complying with the safety regulations at every workplace. Surely, if we continue down this path, the safety standards will improve significantly, and workplace safety will be as valued as it should be.