Trade unions are calling for stronger oversight of major industrial plants after a spike in the number of fatal accidents, fires and dangerous gas leaks since the pandemic began.
The toxic gas leak at a chemical factory in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh in May 2020 brought back memories of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, widely considered the world’s worst industrial disaster.
The deadly leak of styrene gas, which occurred at the South Korea-owned LG Polymers plant on 7 May, killed 12 people and left hundreds experiencing symptoms of ill health. People who were exposed to the poisonous gas still continue to face a variety of health issues, such as breathing problems, asthma and gastrointestinal disorders.
The LG Polymers plant was allegedly operating without environmental clearance for over two decades. Citing documents from the Union Environment Ministry and the state environment department, The Caravan news website reported an allegation that LG Polymers “consistently evaded getting an environmental clearance for the factory by filing contradictory information about itself and taking months to file simple paperwork”. Further, despite being aware of this, senior officials in both the state and central government did not raise questions, it is alleged.
A state government-appointed expert committee found the leak was the result of “poor design of the tank; inadequate refrigeration and faulty cooling system; absence of circulation and mixing systems; inadequate measures and parameters; poor safety protocol; poor safety awareness; inadequate risk assessment response; poor process safety management system; slackness of management; insufficient knowledge of the chemical properties of styrene, especially during storage conditions; total breakdown of the emergency response of the procedures; and safety protocol not being followed by the authorities during the lockdown period”.
In the 1984 Bhopal disaster, over 30 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant, killing more than 15,000 people and affecting over 600,000 workers. More than half a million survivors and their subsequent generations are still struggling with the debilitating after-effects of inhaling the harmful gas – including lung cancer, kidney and liver failure as well eye disorders, among other ailments.
The subsequent investigations concluded the leak was a result of an inadequate governance structure for the plant. Meanwhile, Bhopal-based activist groups point to a number of reported health and safety lapses at the plant, and poor maintenance of equipment and management negligence, as being among the root causes of the incident.
Although the scale of the two tragedies is very different, there are also startling similarities.
According to a local police officer, the leak at LG Polymers occurred as the plant was being restarted as coronavirus restrictions imposed in late March were eased.
In Bhopal, the much bigger leak occurred on the night of 2-3 December 1984, from a tank full of the extremely hazardous chemical methyl isocyanate, when parts of the complex were reactivated after a shutdown.
In both cases, the leak occurred at night, releasing gas into the homes of sleeping workers and their families living in the vicinity of the plant.
Justice for Bhopal victims
Thirty-six years after the Bhopal gas tragedy, survivors are still awaiting justice. They continue to demand that those responsible are adequately published, and are still calling for adequate compensation for the victims, for proper rehabilitation and medical facilities for the survivors and the use of toxic chemicals to be eradicated.
Meanwhile, a case is under trial in the Andhra Pradesh High Court against the management of LG Polymers and several government officials in relation to the gas leak incident at Visakhapatnam in May 2020. The factory was sealed immediately after the accident on the orders of the state government.
Rachna Dhingra, of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, which is fighting for social and legal justice for the Bhopal gas victims, said visuals from the Visakhapatnam leak are quite similar to those from Bhopal in 1984. “The cause also seems the same – compromised safety systems at industrial units,” she said.
These two incidents made international headlines, but there are other industrial accidents, big and small, that happen every year in India.
Reports of injuries
Media reports of workplace injuries and related deaths have been appearing with an alarming frequency even as Indian lawmakers have been busy finalising the new Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020.
Boiler explosions at a thermal power plant in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, operated by Neyveli Lignite Corporation, on 7 May and again on 1 July 2020, killed at least 20 workers.
On 21 January 2021, a fire broke out at Serum Institute of India in Pune – India’s only Covishield vaccine manufacturing facility – killing five workers and damaging machinery.
In March this year, in an accident at SIAL Ghogri coal mines, owned by Reliance Cement, in the Chindwara district of Madhya Pradesh, a contract worker died instantly while another worker was seriously injured. The accident happened when the mine roof collapsed while workers were drilling for the roof support.
Three workers were killed, four were missing and 26 injured, after a blast and major fire broke out in the early morning on 23 February at chemical company United Phosphorus Ltd’s plant at the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation’s Jhagadia industrial estate. Preliminary information suggests that an electric short circuit may have caused a solvent fire. The accident caused massive pollution and the Gujarat Pollution Control Board ordered the factory to shut down.
Avoidable accidents were also reported in the automotive sector. In Pune, in February this year, a welder at the Automotive Stampings and Assemblies Ltd at Chakan unit, sustained fatal injuries to his head and neck when a robotic unit fell on him due to a possible sensor glitch.
Also in February, an explosion at a fireworks factory in Viirudhnagar in Tamil Nadu, killed 21 workers.
As many as 116 industrial accidents in the Indian chemical and mining industries that resulted in the deaths of at least 231 workers were reported between May 2020 and June 2021, according to data collated by IndustriALL Global Union, a Geneva-based federation of unions from around the world.
From May to December 2020, around 64 accidents were reported where 118 workers were killed and several hundreds were injured. From January to June 2021, over 117 workers were killed and about 142 workers were injured in about 52 industrial accidents in the mining and chemical sectors.
“In fact, since the resumption of industrial activities after the Covid-19 lockdown measures were eased in May 2020, India witnessed series of industrial accidents,” IndustriALL said in a statement. “These statistics are merely indicative of the grave situation as they are based on compilation of mainstream media reports and accidents reported by IndustriALL trade union affiliates. The real number of accidents and fatalities may be much higher.”
In addition to these, an estimated 1,857 workers lost their battle against the virus in a direct fight in the manufacturing sector, consisting of public and private businesses, including coal mining, steel and cement corporations. Some of these workers contracted the virus at their workplaces.
IndustriALL, which represents more than 50 million workers across 140 countries, said the deployment of large numbers of untrained precarious and contract workers; poor safety inspection systems; weak implementation of safety protocols and safety awareness; inadequate risk assessment and response; negligence, and the breakdown of emergency response procedures had exacerbated the impact of the accidents.
“IndustriALL is alarmed over the serious accidents, which are beyond the control of individuals and difficult to analyse and prevent using traditional occupational health and safety protocols. Industrial accidents in India are a serious concern,” said Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL assistant general secretary.
“All aspects of safety, including materials, tools, equipment, work environment, job and task procedures, and all stakeholders (government, employers and workers) must create a system of multiple layers of prevention, with no opportunities for shortfall.”
“We are losing large number of workers to Covid-19 and, in addition, frequent fatal accidents have become a serious concern for workers in the manufacturing sector,” said Sanjay Vadhavkar, IndustriALL Executive Committee member and general secretary of the Steel, Metal and Engineering Workers Federation of India (SMEFI).
“The central and state governments should immediately strengthen safety inspection system, conduct appropriate investigation, make the accident investigation reports public, hold public consultation and involve trade unions in improving safety measures and protect workers’ lives at work,” he added.
At least 6,500 lives lost in past five years
In March 2021, the Union Labour Ministry informed parliament that at least 6,500 workers lost their lives during the last five years while working at factories, ports and construction sites. Official agencies may underestimate the loss of lives as they mostly fail to register accidents at smaller factories and worksites. In response to this, in April 2021, the Ministry set up three expert panels to investigate the causes of the rising accidents and suggest remedies.
According to R. Nagaraj, economist and visiting professor at the Centre for Development Studies, the surge in severe fire and explosion-related accidents in industrial and commercial establishments over the last two years exposes India’s patchy safety record.
He also warned that the official reaction to the accidents is predictable. “They are soon forgotten, only to be overtaken by more severe disasters.
“Often, lax regulation and oversight, inadequate and outdated equipment and human negligence are the stock reasons, without fixing responsibility on either employers or concerned government authorities for dereliction of duty.”
'Address the safety crisis'
Dr. Sanjeeva Reddy, president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress, said the government and employers should bear their responsibility to protect the health of their workers and immediately address the safety crisis.
Stating that the recently passed Occupational Health, Safety & Working Conditions Code, 2020 falls short of addressing trade union concerns, Dr Reddy said: “It has limited and confined coverage and leaves out vast sections of working people, including precarious workers. They must work with unions to devise policies and strengthen the existing laws/directives to ensure health and safety of the workers.”
Professor R. Nagaraj blames the effective abolition of industrial labour and safety regulations that was undertaken to boost India’s rank in the World Bank’s global index of Ease of Doing Business (EDB) for the apparent spike in industrial and fire-related accidents.
“Firms fail to realise that workplace accidents raise insurance costs. Loss of skilled workers in accidents undermines productivity growth and profits in the long term,” he warned. “If the evidence and arguments laid out above have merit, then the government’s single-minded attention to boost India’s EDB index rank by knocking down the labour laws has failed to achieve the ‘Make in India’ goal.
“The expert committees formed by the Ministry of Labour to look into the causes of the rising accidents should investigate if the dilution of safety regulation could have contributed to non-compliance of safety rules,” the economist suggests.
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