[Watch/Read] Silicosis - The Silent Killer
1. Silicosis is the most common and one of the most serious occupational diseases. It is fibrotic lung disorder caused by inhalation, retention and pulmonary reaction to crystalline silica, as a result of exposure during mining, stone crushing and other such activities.
2. The average life of a quarry worker is estimated to be between 40 to 50 years. Inhalation and deposition of silica particles in the lungs result in silicosis, which leads to pulmonary fibrosis and premature death.
3. The major silicosis prone industries are stone quarries and crushers, quartz mining, foundries, sand blasting, ceramics industries, gem cutting and polishing, slate/pencil industries, construction, mining industries and glass manufacture industries.
4. In India, an estimated three million workers are exposed to silica in mines and in industries. Among these, the highest prevalence of silicosis is in the slate pencil industry (54.5%) followed by workers in agate industries (38%).
5. In India, silicosis was first diagnosed among Kolar gold mine workers in Karnataka in 1948. Later, it was reported in mica miners in Bihar, stone crushing units workers in Guntur (Andhra Pradesh) and West Bengal, slate pencil industry in Mandsaur (Madhya Pradesh) and Godhra(Gujarat).
6. Quarry owners or the contractors do not take responsibility for any treatment or healthcare facility either for minor or major accidents. Workers are not paid for the days they are absent from work due to accidents or sickness.
7. Quarry owners are insensitive to the situation and not keen to provide safety equipment to the workers. The vulnerability of quarry workers, reflected in the accident rate, is compounded by the fact that the quarry owners do not implement the Workmen’s Compensation Act.
8. Even though silicosis is a notifiable disease as per factories act 1948, the provisions of the Act are applicable only to the registered units in an organized sector. Though it is a notifiable disease under the Factory Act and qualifies for compensation under the Workers Compensation Act and Employees State Insurance (ESI) Act, workers fail to get it because they have no identity cards, ESI cards or other documents.
9. In the unorganized sector, small stone polishing units that are based in the homes of workers do not fall under the purview of the Factories Act and are, therefore, not accessible for monitoring to regulatory authorities such as the factory inspectorate. In addition, since the work is done at home, primary workers and their family members are always at risk of silicosis due to the exposure to silica dust.
10. There is no system in place for medical professionals to document and inform government public health systems about the morbidity and mortality associated with silicosis.
11. Activist Sharafat Ali Azad has been waging a long court battle in regards with this issue. Azad’s People’s Rights and Social Research Centre (PRASAR) moved the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to demand implementation of labor laws and compensation for victims.
12. The ILO/WHO Global Programme for the Elimination of Silicosis (GPES) was established following recommendations in 1995. The joint ILO/WHO committee on occupational health identified the global elimination of silicosis as a priority area for action, obliging countries to place it high on their agendas. India has its own national programme for the elimination of silicosis.
13. GPES initially focused on secondary prevention, upgrading the skills of physicians and strengthening the system of health surveillance.
14. A silica essential toolkit has been developed, applying the principles of control banding. Control banding is a risk assessment and management tool used where there is no technical expert, or quantitative exposure data is unavailable. It comprises step-by-step administrative actions to be taken by the employer to eliminate or reduce hazards in the workplace. Employers can be guided on what measures to take to control dust, for instance.
15. Although a national program for the elimination of silicosis in India may be in place, the effects are not being seen on the ground. Mortality and morbidity rates are not going down. Also, the government does not even have figures to compare any progress that could be taking place.