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Safety Compromised
"Accidents just don't happen - they are caused." Though this does sound like a clichéd statement, it is very true. When any accident happens, time and again investigation reveals that that it could have been prevented. Mittravinda Ranjan writes.

On May 14, 2013, the explosion in Chemistar Intermediates Pvt Ltd, a small chemical manufacturing facility, was burned to ashes after an explosion in the boiler of the plant and resulted in the death of two persons and left couple of others injured. Primary investigation reveals that the lack of proper maintenance in the unit caused the accident. The police has registered the case of negligence and submitted the report to concerned authorities from the state government which is currently investigating the actual cause of the accident.

The chemical plant is located in the industrial area of Dombivli and was producing intermediates for dyeing industry. This area has been one of the prominent industrial belt and houses many small scale industrial units in the region under the jurisdiction of Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) and Directorate, Industry Safety & Health, Government of Maharashtra.

Many such accidents have occurred in chemical plants across India resulting in heavy financial losses as well as fatalities. Most of the reasons cited for the accidents in the public domain are based on the preliminary inspection reports with negligence at some or other level.

Can't Afford Ignoring the Risks
It is the general tendency of the people, especially in SME sector, to ignore the risks that are involved in manufacturing activities. Further, the lack of competent staff (overlooking the competencies of the people) to execute the processes is another element that adds to the woe. These compromises result in losses which are not limited to finances only. "It is extremely unfortunate that the workers in the factory premises are irrationally considered to be competent enough to handle the plants. This emanates from the general tendency towards making profits and not considering capability and competency, as the basic parameters to do a job, result in such untoward incidences," says V B Sant, Director General, National Safety Council, Government of India. "In case on any such casualties the owners end up losing much more than the earnings. That is exactly what happened in the Chemistar factory, where the factory has been burned to ashes," Sant adds.

Who Assess the Risks?
Small chemical industries do not pay heed to proper risk assessment strategies; however, to some extent the onus also lies on the respective safety boards as well.

Factories Act of 1948 mandates the manufacturers to take necessary permissions from the safety boards of respective states before setting up the operations, but only when the number of employees is 10 or more than 10. Although most of the states have added extensions to the Factories Act by making certain set of rules that the manufacturers need to comply with as in case of Maharashtra where even the smallest of the chemical units dealing with the any kind of hazardous chemicals are covered under the Act, many small manufacturers do not contact the industry boards for permissions especially the ones that are located in remote locations. It is big concern.

Every state has a separate directorate or board as the law enforcement body for implementation of safety norms in the industries in their respective states. These safety boards appoint factory inspectors who are responsible to carry out routine checks across the industries in the states. However, the lack of skilled inspectors is a concern.

"In a vast country like India, there are hardly 700 qualified factory inspectors, and each one has to visit 500-600 factories every year, which is actually not practical," Sant states.

V S Moray, Director, Directorate, Industrial Safety & Health Board, State of Maharashtra further shares that there are more than 45000 chemical and nonchemical industrial units in the state covered under the Factories Act and the board has the approval for 134 inspectors and has many vacant posts. These statistics are alarming and the actual visits can not be justified.

Lack of Proper Strategies According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) - Highest Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) standards worldwide are in the best interests of every worker, every employer and every nation. ILO advocates a two pronged strategy to implement best practices in the organisations to create win-win situation, which includes topdown approach for implementing OSH standards as the part of management systems. It is then followed across all the functions within the organisation creating awareness amongst the workers to build inherently safe culture at the bottom of the pyramid.

Most of the large scale companies have incorporated Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as the integral part of the companyÊs policy which mandates them to comply with the OSH norms across the entire supply chain. Eventually the vendors for such corporates are mandated to comply with these norms.

"With big players conforming to such norms will have a great influence on the smaller manufacturers as they will be compelled to conform to the OSH standards sooner or later," Sant notes.

Many countries have set same OSH standards for different industries rather than having separate acts for different industries. There is a need of having single window clearance system to assess the risks for the industries in India.

Sant reveals, "The Ministry of Labour & Employment (MoL&E), Govt. of India, did try bringing separate legislation for setting the OSH standards. The bill intended of setting up OSH Board at the national level which would have the authority to set up standards, investigate into all the accidents and give directions. Though the bill was prepared, but not passed in the Parliament."

Unlike USA which has a chemical safety board that thoroughly investigates such accident happening in the industry, India still lacks one. The safety standards in India for the chemical industry are at par with the international standards, but the issue is how to implement them, especially in the SME sector.

Small and medium chemical company have mushroomed all over India. Government agencies constantly try promoting the message of building inherently safe culture but somehow the message has failed to reach very small chemical manufacturers who invariably try cutting corners to reduce the overall costs with the aim of improving profit margins.

Each of such incidents is a clarion call for implementation of OSH standards for the chemical manufacturers and particularly the SME sector that forms a major part India's manufacturing sector and employs almost 73 million people and contributes 9 per cent to the country's gross domestic production (GDP).