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Need for a Database of workers vulnerable to Silicosis & NHRC recommendations on Silicosis

Written By Unknown on Thursday, August 29, 2013 | 8:29 AM


Shri Subhash Sharma,
Principal Secretary
Department of Labour
Government of Bihar

Subject-Need for a Database of workers vulnerable to Silicosis & NHRC recommendations on Silicosis


I wish to draw your attention towards the issue of silicosis in the context of paragraph 2.24 of India’s National Health Policy, 2002 that deals with ‘Environmental and occupational health’ saying: “The ambient environmental conditions are a significant determinant of the health risks to which a community is exposed... In this backdrop, the Policy initiatives, and the efficient implementation of the linked programmes in the health sector, would succeed only to the extent that they are complemented by appropriate policies and programmes in the other environment-related sectors.”

I wish to draw your attention towards the attached ‘Recommendations of National Human Rights Commission on Preventive, Remedial, Rehabilitative and Compensation Aspects of Silicosis’ which needs to be adopted given the fact that construction industry in Bihar is emerging in a big way but the plight of the workers is getting ignored.

I submit that silicosis is an incurable lung disease caused by inhalation of dust containing free crystalline silica. It is irreversible and, moreover, the disease progresses even when exposure stops. Extremely high exposures are associated with much shorter latency and more rapid disease progression.

I submit that in Bihar silica dust is likely to be released during operations in sand, concrete, quarries and construction sites and in masonry workshops which is particularly risky. Even operations, like dry sweeping, the clearing of sand or concrete, or the cleaning of masonry with pressurized air can generate large dust clouds. Even in open air these activities can be hazardous.

I submit that there is widespread under-diagnosis and under-reporting of silicosis cases in Bihar. The statistical and epidemiological data on silicosis is almost non-existent especially in the construction industry, where most workers are not registered. There is a need for respiratory protection for these workers.

I feel Bihar can attempt and take a lead in acting on the intent of the National Health Policy, 2002 with regard to ‘Environmental and occupational health’ by creating a synergy between Health Department, Environment Department and Labour Department.

I submit that year overexposure to respirable dust containing crystalline silica causes disease, temporary and permanent disabilities, and death. Silicosis results in conditions such as lung fibrosis and emphysema. The form and severity in which silicosis manifests itself depend on the type and extent of exposure to silica dusts: chronic, accelerated and acute forms are all recognized. In later stages the critical condition can become disabling and is often fatal. A frequent cause of death in people with silicosis is pulmonary tuberculosis (silico-tuberculosis). Respiratory insufficiencies due to massive fibrosis and emphysema (respiratory tissue loss is not always present), as well as heart failure, are other causes of death.

I have been working to persuade policy makers to adopt preventive route to reverse the trend of mortality and morbidity especially with regard to risk factors of chronic respiratory diseases. The Global Burden of Disease project of WHO has confirmed that approximately one-quarter of the global disease burden, and more than one-third of the burden among children, is due to modifiable environmental factors. This is enormously important in protecting public health and can serve as an example for the rest of India in reducing the impact of an imminent public health disaster. 

As a public health researcher who works on the impact of hazardous industries I had co-organised a Conference on Occupational and Environmental Health in Patna on December 24, 2012 which was inaugurated by Chairman, Bihar Legislative Council wherein senior trade union leaders, eminent doctors, academicians and jurists participated along with international experts.   

It occurred to me that I should share few issues on which I have worked to bring their seriousness to your attention. 

I have worked on the issue of worker's health and their living environment in the hazardous industries like ship breaking industry, chemical industry, asbestos industry, waste recycling industry, mine and mineral wastes. I have been an applicant in the related matter in the Supreme Court, NHRC, and Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour and UN agencies like ILO, WHO, Basel Convention, Rotterdam Convention etc.

I engaged with Prof. M G K. Menon who headed the Supreme Court constituted High Powered Committee (HPC) for examination of all matters relating to hazardous wastes and their impacts.

I had appeared before the Supreme Court constituted Technical Experts Committee on Hazardous Wastes relating to Ship-breaking in 2006-7 that had asked National Institute of Occupational Health, (NIOH) to undertake an epidemiological study was planned to find out the
magnitude of asbestos related health problems and other disorders among ship breaking workers. The study observed that 15 (16 %) of 94 workers occupationally exposed to asbestos showed linear shadows on chest X-rays, and 26 workers (39%) showed restrictive impairment. But despite Supreme Court’s order dated January 27, 1995 fixing Rs 1 lakh for victims of asbestos related diseases these workers were not compensated.

I had appeared before the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes which examined the issue of occupational and environmental exposure from the issue of asbestos laden French aircraft carrier, Le Clemenceau in 2005-2006 among other issues. The ship was recalled by the French Court because India did not have the infrastructure to deal with its hazards.

I had accompanied and briefed the UN Special Rapporteur on how although ship breaking operations are on in Alang, Bhavnagar, Gujarat since 1983 till date there is no hospital with occupational and environmental health infrastructure and competent doctors. The situation remains unchanged and Alang remains a workers grave yard along with the grace yard of end-of-life ships. 

I have been using the report of the Union Ministry of Labour constituted a Special Committee to examine “Impact of Hazardous Wastes on Workers’ Health” headed by Director General, Directorate of General Factory Advice Service and Labour Institute (DGFASLI) on orders of the Supreme Court in the hazardous wastes case wherein I was an applicant.      

I wrote to your earlier on August 8, 2013 about strike by workers of Tamil Nadu based Ramco asbestos company who were strike from August 2 to 25 August, 2013 where the company continues to refuse to share the heath records of workers with them. This is in contempt of Supreme Court’s order dated January 27, 1995, the company is not maintaining and maintaining the health record of every worker, not conducting Membrane Filter test to detect asbestos fibre and not insuring health coverage to every worker. This factory does not doctor qualified in occupational health to undertake these tasks.

I urge you to ensure that company provides a list of workers employed in the factory, their health records and the qualification of the doctor assigned to undertake their health checkup. In June 2013, one worker was crushed to death in the conveyor belt of the asbestos factory in Giddha, Koilwar, Bhojpur.

With regard to silicosis victims in Bihar there is an urgent need to create a district wise registry of these victims so that they can get just compensation and some medical relief. All the hospitals and nursing homes dealing with respiratory problems should be asked to file report about silicosis like diseases based on patients’ occupational history.  There is a need for a State Action Plan for Prevention and Mitigation of Silicosis based on a database of workers vulnerable to silicosis. 

I wonder as to whether my submissions to you will bring any relief to workers because there has been no action so far in the matter of my earlier letter. Still I feel such communications are required to underline the extent of externalization of the human cost on which 'growth' and 'development' song is sung.       

Warm Regards
Gopal Krishna
Occupational Health India (OHI)
ToxicsWatch Alliance (TWA)
Mb: 09818089660, 08227816731
Web: www.toxicswatch.org


Dr. Mrutyunjay Sarangi, Secretary, Union Ministry of Labour

Shri Anup Chandra Pandey Chairman, Advisory Committee on Asbestos, Union Ministry of Labour

Dr. R.B. Raidas, Dy.Director General, Directorate General, Factory Advice and Labour Institutes (DGFASLI)

Dr Vyasji Mishra, Principal Secretary, Health, Government of Bihar 

Dr. V.M. Katoch, Secretary, Department of Health Research & Director General Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare 

Prof. Subhash Chandra Singh, Chairman, Bihar State Pollution Control Board

Dr. G.K. Rath, Head of Department of Radio Oncology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS)
Shri, Suresh Kumar Sinha, Labour Commissioner, Department of Labour, Government of Bihar

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