Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in India: The problem magnitude
As per the International Labour Organisation (ILO), globally every year, 2.3 million workers die due to work-related accidents or diseases, which corresponds to over 6000 deaths every day. In a large country like India, occurrence of industrial accidents is common, despite the country having strict labour regulations. Several instances of health and safety violations at enterprise level often go unreported. There is lack of credible national data on workplace accidents, deaths, injuries, and occupational diseases. Such data gaps restrict understanding of the overall magnitude of the problem.
Micro, small and medium enterprises along with a rampant informal economy (the latter being the source of livelihood for 90 per cent of the workforce) dominate the Indian employment scenario. With a huge workforce looking desperately for jobs, health and safety often takes a backseat. Cut-throat competition has given rise to precarious employment where applying cost cutting measures is normal, at times compromising on workers safety and health. Further, the Covid-19 spurred crisis has increased informalisation and poses immense challenge in realising occupational health and safety for all.
Strengthening the policy and legislative framework
The Indian Constitution through Article 24 prohibits employment of children below the age of 14 years. Article 39 (e and f) states that the health of men, women and children needs to be protected. Article 42 calls for humane conditions at work and provides for maternity benefits. Additionally, there are several sectoral labour legislations which have clauses on occupational health and safety, some prominent laws being the factories act, the mines act, the dock workers (safety, health, and welfare) act and the building and other construction workers (regulation of employment and conditions of service) act.
The recent promulgation of the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 subsumes the sectoral legislations mentioned above. However, the new proposed code on OHS is applicable only to establishments employing ten or more workers, ignoring the fact that India has millions of small enterprises employing less than ten persons. Vulnerability of such workers shall remain unaddressed if and when the new OHS code gets implemented. It also dilutes the original objective of the labour law reforms of bringing the last worker within the ambit of labour laws, which for years have been catering to only a mere ten per cent of the workforce in India.
Some years back, in 2009, the Government of India came up with the national policy on safety, health and environment at workplace. The policy provides for guidelines to develop workplace safety, a statutory framework, developing research, preventive measures, and monitoring. Reviewing and updating the national policy after considering new emerging workplace realities would go a long way in providing a broad framework for promoting health and safety in India.
Invest in surveillance, training and education
It is a known fact that a robust system of workplace inspection can help in averting workplace accidents. However, for a workforce of 542 million, there are only a few thousand of safety officers, factory inspectors and medical inspectors. This abysmally low percentage needs to be substantiated manifold by making available more trained personnel to carry out workplace inspections, backed by active involvement of workers’ organisations and employers.
Another issue is inadequate training and education of workers on health and safety issues. Employers also lack necessary skills and knowledge to address workplace concerns on health and safety. This situation can be improved through better availability and access to training and education programmes. In an ideal situation, health and safety training for all workers should be mandatory, both prior to recruitment and then need-based trainings should continue throughout their employment tenure. Tax rebates or financial incentives could be offered to employers to encourage them to invest in health and safety training of their employees.
Renewing vows of tripartism
In its June 2022 Conference, the ILO included safe and healthy working environment in its framework of fundamental principles and rights at work. For workers organisations’ bringing occupational safety and health within the realm of ILO’s core conventions was a long pending demand. The timing of this inclusion could not be more appropriate when the world is still coming out of the worst health pandemic. This development at the ILO is indeed positive, but more needs to be done on the ground by member countries.
World over, examples of good health and safety practice norms have been attained after years of collective perseverance. Constant dialogue among the Government, Employers and Workers’ Organisations can go a long way in shaping the desired policy framework. Good industrial relations at the workplace among workers and management can help in putting policies into practice. The two ILO conventions 155 and 187 on occupational safety and health provide a roadmap for institutionalising health and safety in work practices – the change has to begin now!
Anup Srivastava is Program Adviser of the Labour and Industrial Relations program at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung India office in New Delhi.