On use of safety gear in the Indian Industry (Part 2)

A construction worker wearing an oversized pair of gum boots only because he has an injury on his shin (at a site in PES Engineering College, Electronic City, Bangalore)
A construction worker wearing an oversized pair of gum boots only because he has an injury on his shin (at a site in PES Engineering College, Electronic City, Bangalore)

My interest in  Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or Safety Gear use in India stems from a business interest that I have. Doing long road trips and train rides do this thing to you – that you  are never short of ideas to pursue. Starting a business in manufacturing PPE for construction and building industry is one such idea from a basket full of it that I carry. The fact that so few workers use it and that manufacturing some smartly designed products in this segment can sure boost the use of PPE and thereby improve occupational safety and health in India. So there! I hit a real issue and make money as well. Now, towards this I began with a small economics project where I explore just why isn’t the industry or government bothered about ensuring PPE use and what are the issues involved.

(I have immensely benefited from industry insights and perspectives of Nandakumar Vadakepatth and T V Varadarajan, Senior Sustainability Practitioners at Det Norske Veritas AS (DNV). The paper rests on the understanding drawn from the valuable information shared by them. I am also thankful to P N Narayan (at Wipro), Vikas Kumar and Chiranjib Sen. The earlier discussions on the topic with them have shaped the paper and propelled me to pursue this lesser known area of industry.)

In a recent article Saving Economics from Economists Ronald Coase expresses his concern about the increasing distance of economics as practised from business and entrepreneurship, as it happens in the real world. He concludes by saying, “At a time when the modern economy is becoming increasingly institutions-intensive, the reduction of economics to price theory is troubling enough. It is suicidal for the field to slide into a hard science of choice, ignoring the influences of society, history, culture, and politics on the working of the economy.”

The thought about PPE use in India stems from a commonplace observation of many construction sites –buildings, highways, bridges etc, as one travels across India. The observed required a scientific rigour in order to understand just why things are the way they are. Economics as we understand, did not offer a satisfactory explanation to the phenomenon of poor use and implementation of PPE in various industries. This perhaps explains why we concur with Coase’s conclusion. In course of our study we have found that many factors influence the use of PPE than financial reasons alone. The labour dynamics- availability and nature (migrant or local), perception of employers and the workers towards safety and history of its use in India – all of these together paint a complete ecosystem in which the workers in India exist. This paper is an attempt to understand this ecosystem and build a body of knowledge which can be instrumental in studying the poor use of PPE and means to improve it.
Here, I would also like to engage in a value based discussion of current practices in the industry. A lesser known Indian economist J. C. Kumarappa in a booklet Economy of Permanance offers a strikingly relevant thought to the present context in spite of the booklet being written in 1945. He reasons that “the standard of value applied and the method of valuation used impress their characteristic trait on their users”. In our context the users are the employers who place a certain value to worker safety and health. This value then determines the level of attention and care that they are likely to give to the issue apart from the minimal compliance with legal acts that safeguard workers’ interests. Mere compliance as we find do not help in reducing the accidents and fatalities in the industry. It needs the employers to view safety as a priority and workers health as central to their interests. We take the value argument further where it is closely linked with ethics. While market based incentives might bring in a short term improvement in worker safety (as seen in ISO standards based rating of companies) these have business interest at the core, as motivation. An ethical stand would imply recognition for basic human dignity and value of contribution that a worker makes to the entire endeavour of production than merely deeming it an act of paid labour for which he is compensated by wages. Such an argument is corroborated with the reasoning in the paper Are Gandhi’s Economic Precepts relevant in the Era of Globalization where the relevance of ethics is established based on an analysis of current economic problems and how Gandhian ideas stand relevant in addressing them. Sen argues, “The failure of market-fundamentalism has revealed very starkly the necessity of re-establishing an ethically grounded ideology for both business and for policy.”

I think factors that effect PPE use are a fine mesh of interconnected issues that are quite typical of India. A laundry list of issues looks like the following. As I go further I would take each one of these and explore them further.

  1. Financial Cost: It is noteworthy that the actual cost of providing PPE to the workers in a construction project is about 0.6% of the project cost.5 This is a very small cost component of the project and indicates that there is no financial barrier as far as provisioning of PPE by employers is concerned. It is an important figure to remember because the common argument against use of PPE in industry is that they are expensive to buy and that employers have to spend heavily on it. Considering the cost of provisioning PPE as a fraction of project cost it can be easily seen that it is well within the reach of employers and does not require any financial capability to achieve it.
  2. Availability: Much of the  PPE range is widely available in India. The products are manufactured according to the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) specifications. PPE manufacturing industry sufficiently services the needs in India as far as the low-tech products like gloves, helmets, boots and harness are concerned. The higher range of protective gear for specific purposes like working near a furnace requires air cooled helmets, which are imported from manufactures in Europe. Only technologically sophisticated gear is imported and this segment of the market is small. However, most of the broad spectrum PPE is accessible and available in many sizes, grades and designs.
  3. Design: Use of PPE is dependent on how good the equipment fits when the worker wears it and if it causes any alteration in his functioning and productivity. If the PPE fits loose or is obstructing the worker in his work then there is a high likelihood that the worker may not wear it. This is a commonplace occurrence in India. For instance, gum boots worn by workers at a building construction site or highway are often very loose and sloppy to work with. A researcher notes in his paper Health and Safety at Workplaces in India that “informal workers give low priority to OSH, as having work is more important than the quality of the job. Many workers argue that they may die of work, but if they do not work their families would die of hunger.”6 This reflects the priority that workers tend to give to having a job. And when they have it, they do it regardless of how safe the working environment is. The issues here are two fold – a) poor design of PPE and ergonomics of use; b) attitude of workers and employers towards OHS. Although there are numerous manufacturers and suppliers of PPE their design, material of construction and ergonomics tend to be neglected.A broad range of fixed sizes are manufactured which then employers buy in fixed lots and pass on to the workers. Boots, gloves, safety vest, helmets and other wearable gear is seldom appropriate for the men and women who use them. Understandably, they would not want to use it if the gear cannot be adjusted and made to fit snug. Since the danger of not using it is not apparent or at times negotiable like scaling of skin, ocular irritation etc, the workers tend to do away with wearing it. Only cases of widely used gear are when they work on high rise buildings where they compulsorily use safety harness and in using helmets. Other than these PPE is little used on ground due to design and ergonomics issues. The danger in not using PPE is often not immediate or safety related. It could be a slow setting health risk like bronchial asthama from prolonged exposure to fine dust and cement at construction sites. This hazard due to its slow onset, is often neglected.
  4. Location: Use of PPE is also location dependent. When the construction site is remote the norms of PPE use are generally flouted by the employers. It could be due to issues in supplying PPE in such remote location or plain lack of concern for the workers. Alternatively, workers too tend to avoid using it if they find that the site supervisors and safety manager would rarely check. Other than this, the climatic factors are very critical for a temperate country like India. Most PPE and accessories are made of polymers and thick canvas. All these materials are poor in allowing any ventilation when worn. The user is likely to feel hot and extremely uncomfortable in using them on a hot summer day in any of the cities in India. As it appears currently, PPE manufacturing industry concerns itself with producing standard compliant gear and research in materials and design is non-existent.
  5. Awareness: Informal as well as formal sector workers in India remain woefully unaware of the hazards associated with their occupations. The problem is compounded by the fact that they feel inadequate or are vulnerable in voicing their concerns to their employers. In spite of several unions and associations they have, the bargaining power with the workers is negligent compared to their employer asserting his interest.

Poor OHS standards also have tremendous social costs. And these are poorly understood in India. The disease burden in India is high due to several preventable communicable diseases. This is pushed further by occupational hazards which 90% of the work force employed in informal sector suffers from. Loss of an income earning member of a family can push that family into poverty and perhaps erase all chances of the children to educate and find a way out of poverty. Debilitating work in stone quarries, asbestos industries, cement and fertilizer warehouses and other such places involving hard physical labour under trying conditions cause incalculable harm to health and vitality of a person. If it happens to be the man of a house, his wife and children then bear the burden. In many cases it is men, women and children equally afflicted with the occupational hazards. These are the social costs which the family bears working in an environment which has little or no regard for worker safety and health.

Now, there are multiple issues here which merit a comprehensive paper. The landscape to me appears interesting particularly from an entrepreneur’s point of view.

One thought on “On use of safety gear in the Indian Industry (Part 2)

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