Visakhapatnam gas leak: Need for stricter enforcement of labour laws

While in these difficult times when there is a need for more workers' protection,  relaxation of labour laws may not be in the overall interest of workers and there is a need for a rethink on the entire issue, particularly after incidents such as the Visakhapatnam gas leak,  writes Partha Pratim Mitra for South Asia Monitor

Partha Pratim Mitra May 12, 2020
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The recent gas leak in a chemical plant in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh has brought back the issue of workers' safety on the national agenda. The Factories Act,1948  lays down the statute for health, safety welfare and conditions of work in India's factories engaging 10 or more workers using power and 20 or more workers not using power. The Act was amended in 1987, primarily based on the lessons learned from the Bhopal disaster of December 1984. 

A new chapter (Chapter IV A) was added in the Act which contained provisions related to hazardous processes. The main provisions of this chapter included provisions of a site appraisal committee to be constituted by the state government to consider applications for grant of permission for the initial location of the factory involving a hazardous process, compulsory disclosure of information by the person managing the affairs of the factory, emergency standards to be laid down by the central government, workers participation in safety management, right of workers to warn against imminent danger. 

The chapter also puts specific responsibilities on managements to update health records of workers, conduct medical examination regularly of workers, appoint qualified persons to handle hazardous substances and make the workplace safe by providing facilities for workers protection. The chapter also provides for the appointment of an inquiry committee by the central government. In other words, the lessons learnt from the Bhopal gas tragedy, if implemented in the right spirit, such incidents of the gas leak should not have recurred if due precaution was taken by the concerned authorities. 

There are reports that the South Korean company involved, LG Polymers, has set up a special task force and experts have stated that the company had reopened after lockdown of 40 days causing a variation in temperature between the bottom and upper parts of the storage tank from the leak occurred, causing 12 deaths and 300 people hospitalized.

Coal mining

The coal mining industry in India, another hazardous industry, and governed by the Mines Act, 1952,  is spread mainly in eastern and central India and engages about 5.6 lakh (560,000) workers on a daily basis. There can be no doubt that the safety of these workers, who work under difficult ground conditions, is extremely important, and more layers of safety should be introduced in hazardous industries. One possible approach is to assess the overall risk of operating the plant or the mine.  

It is possible to introduce an approach of risk assessment as an important component of safety and risk management.  In doing so it would also not be advisable to discontinue the existing prescriptive safety approach, given in the statutes and the various mine regulations that have been evolved over a period of time. The risk assessment would, therefore, be an additional layer of safety and the complete transition to this approach will have to be planned carefully.

Global literature seems to conclude that both risk management through risk assessment and rule compliance through prescription are mutually complementary and the main issue here is to get the balance right. This is part of a global approach to make rule compliance within an overall risk management framework. The entire syndrome has been best described as a rule management strategy which requires managements of undertakings to recognize that the regime of rules is always a work in progress, and through an active risk assessment process, which identifies and assesses the risk, new areas for rules to be put in place arises. In this manner, both rule compliance and risk assessment go hand in hand with no conflict in the two approaches.

In India, the new labour code on occupational safety health and working conditions proposed by the central government, which is presently under the consideration of Parliament,  show that it is possible to incorporate features of risk assessment apart from the prescriptive provisions. An important new feature of the code is the creation of an advisory body which is expected to bring about a change in the safety paradigm of the country and pave the way forward from a prescriptive to more advisory-oriented approach which would set safety standards.

Safety advisory board 

The creation of the National Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board is expected to bring about this change. It would be the apex body to advise the central government on the matters relating to: 

(i) Standards, rules and regulations to be framed under this Code;

(ii) implementation of the provisions of this Code and the rules and regulations relating thereto;

(iii) the issues of policy relating to occupational safety and health referred to it, from time to time, by the Central Government; and

(iv) Any other matter relating to this code referred to, from time to time, by the Central Government.

Suspension of labour laws 

Some state governments such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have through ordinance suspended labor laws related to labor unions, settling work disputes, regulations for working conditions, contracts, among others. This includes The Minimum Wages Act, The Maternity Benefit Act, The Equal Remuneration Act, The Trade Unions Act, The Industrial Employment Act, The Industrial Disputes Act, and The Factories Act.

While in these difficult times when there is a need for more workers' protection,  relaxation of labour laws may not be in the overall interest of workers and there is a need for a rethink on the entire issue, particularly after incidents such as the Visakhapatnam gas leak, where there is a need for stricter enforcement of labour laws and, more specifically, those concerned with workers' safety in hazardous industries.

(The writer is a retired Indian Economic Service officer who worked in the labour ministry. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at ppmitra56@gmail.com)

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