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Covid interruptions take a toll on workers' safety; 231 killed since May 2020

Covid interruptions take a toll on workers' safety; 231 killed since May 2020

From May to Dec 2020, 64 accidents reported wherein 118 workers killed and several hundreds injured. From January to June 2021, over 117 workers killed and about 142 workers injured

Story highlights
  • 116 industrial accidents recorded in chemical and mining industries in India leading to 231 fatalities between May 2020 and June 2021
  • Intermittent lockdowns followed by phased resumption of manufacturing activity has seen a spike in industrial accidents
  • Intermittent lockdowns followed by phased resumption of manufacturing activity has seen a spike in industrial accidents
  • Between May and December 2020, 64 accidents reported and 118 workers killed. Between January and June this year, another 52 accidents reported with 117 workers dead
  • Additionally an estimated 1,857 workers lost their lives to Covid in 32 industrial establishments. Some of them contracted the virus in factories.

One of the lesser talked about but highly damaging impact of the pandemic is the deteriorating track record of industrial workers safety in India. The stop start nature of manufacturing that industries have had to adopt during the pandemic has seen a spurt in the number of accidents.

According to data collated by IndustriALL Global Union, as many as 116 industrial accidents in chemical and mining industries were reported in the country that led to the death of at least 231 workers between May last year and June this year.  From May to December, 2020, around 64 accidents were reported wherein 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 happened in mining and chemical industries.

"In fact, since the resumption of industrial activities after the Covid-19 lockdown measures 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 comprising public and private including coal mining, steel, cement corporations. Some of them contracted the virus at their workplaces. IndustriALL which represents more than 50 million workers across 140 countries, said deployment of large number of untrained precarious / contract workers, poor safety inspection system, weak implementation of safety protocol and safety awareness, inadequate risk assessment and response; negligence; breakdown of the emergency response procedures have 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, however they are highly under-reported and statistics revealed that their coverage also incomplete," 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."  

Some of the prominent accidents that have happened in India in the last 16 months includes a toxic gas leak at LG Polymers chemical factory in Visakhapatnam in May 2020, boiler explosions at the thermal power plant in Neyveli Lignite Corporation in May and again in July 2020, and another boiler explosion at Yashashvi Rasayan Private Limited at Dahej in Gujarat in June 2020. This year in January, a fire broke out at Serum Institute of India in Pune - India's largest vaccine maker - killing five workers.

"The government of India should form an expert commission to analyse the industrial accidents and identify the root causes and errors committed. The government and employers should bear their responsibility to protect the health of their workers and immediately address the safety crisis," said Dr. Sanjeeva Reddy, president, Indian National Trade Union Congress. "The recently passed Occupational Health, Safety & Working Conditions Code, 2019 fall short of addressing trade unions concerns. It has limited and confined coverage and leaves out of vast section 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."

In March 2021, the government had said at least 6,500 workers have lost their lives during the last five years while working at factories, ports, and construction sites. The following month, the Union Labour Ministry set up three expert panels to investigate the causes of the rising accidents and suggest remedies.

"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 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."

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