How to strengthen the National Occupational Safety and Health systems

The National Policy on Safety, Health and Environment at the Workplace announced in 2009 had proposed several actions at the national and state level; but they are yet to take-off, leaving workers are at risk

By Kiran Pandey
Published: Friday 03 May 2019
Representational Image. Photo: Getty Images
Representational Image. Photo: Getty Images Representational Image. Photo: Getty Images

It’s been a decade since the National Policy on Safety, Health and Environment at the Workplace (NPSHEW) was announced. It called for a legislation on safety, health and environment at workplaces. Yet, only the manufacturing, mining, ports and construction sectors are covered by existing laws on Occcupational Safety and Health (OSH).

Around 2.3 lakh workers were affected and 2,500 died in more than 81 industrial accidents in the past three-and-a-half decades. Yet sectors such as agriculture, services and transport remain unlegislated from the point of work-safety.

The issue has been flagged by the Directorate General Factory Advice Service and Labour Institutes (DGFASLI) of the Union Ministry of Labour & Employment.

In 2018, the DGFASLI suggested that a comprehensive legislation on OSH covering all sectors needed to be developed within three years. Progress, however, hasn’t been much. There has also not been a specific budget to support the effective implementation of policy.

Factories Act not enforced

Under the Factories Act, 1948, the state governments are empowered to frame their respective state factories rules and enforce both the Act and the Rules in their states through their Inspectorates of Factories / Directorates of Industrial Safety and Health under the labour departments.

But these Inspectorates / Directorates are not adequately staffed for enforcing the Act and the Rules. In fact, many posts under these Inspectorates / Directorates have been lying vacant. Besides this, the central rules under this are not available. These rules are required to be framed and enforced by an authority under the central government for the factories under the administrative control of the central government and public sector undertakings.

Nevertheless, close to 7,668 people were convicted and fined over Rs 91.2 million for violating this Act as per the latest estimates presented in Parliament in February 2019. Tamil Nadu reported the maximum number of violations, with 2,989 people convicted, followed by Haryana (1,675) and Gujarat (1,166). Interestingly, the number of convictions in Haryana have come down by nearly 71 per cent (down from 5,905 in 2014).

Dock Workers Act, 1986 and Regulations, 1990 enforced in major ports only

The Dock Workers (Safety, Health and Welfare) Act, 1986 and Regulations, 1990 have been enforced only in major ports by the DGFASLI.  

In other ports, the state governments are required to frame respective state regulations and enforce the provisions of the both, the Act and the Regulations, in these ports. However, till date, none of the states have framed their regulations for enforcement in these ports. These ports are also handling huge quantities of cargo, including dangerous goods; the absence of regulation on safety and health of the workers and its enforcement is a major gap

Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act not being enforced in true spirit

Even though the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Act, 1996, is being enforced by the Labour Commissioners at the centre and at the state Level, but the safety and health provisions under the Act are highly technical in nature and are not being enforced in true letter and spirit. But the DGFASLI, having technical expertise in the OSH field, is willing to support in enforcing them.

Limited research on occupational safety

Modern approaches for dealing with safety, health and environment at workplace demands research in the area. But the number of institutes in the country for research and development are limited and these too are not fully equipped for carrying out their activities effectively.

Capturing data related to occupational safety and health across all the sectors has also been an issue for a long time, which has not been taken seriously till date. The most recent facts and figures shared by the ministry in Parliament in February 2019 were up to 2016 only. 

Each ministry (or the respective department) is supposed to have a detailed policy on the working environment according to the guidelines on the National Policy. But so far, the Ministries or Departments have not worked out their policy. It is important to have suitable schemes for subsidy and provision of loans to enable effective implementation of the policy. However, such a scheme too has not been launched so far.  

Lack of legislation on safety and health in agriculture is hindering the ratification of ILO convention 155 

The agriculture sector is the largest sector of economic activity and needs to be regulated for safety and health aspects. But the sector is lacking on legislation on safety and health for workers in this sector.  There are certain Acts on occupational safety and health pertaining to certain equipment or substances, namely, the Dangerous Machines Regulation Act, the Insecticides Act. But the enforcement authorities are not identified under these Acts and hence are not being enforced.  

Lack of legislation on safety and health in the agriculture sector is hindering the ratification of ILO convention 155. Ratification of ILO conventions concerning occupational safety and health needs to be expedited, says the profile document on occupational health prepared by the DGFASLI. 

It is also worrying that the Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises too do not have any legislation to cover the safety and health of the workers.

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