Report on Seminar on Asbestos Hazards1
The inaugural session was presided over by Dr. Vora, Director, ESIS, Ahmedabad, Dr. JR Parikh, retired scientist, NIOH and Mr. Choudhary, Deputy Director, Industrial Safety & Health. Dr. Vora, in the inaugural speech compared occupational disease with lifestyle disease and also drew some comparisons with funding available for diseases like HIV/AIDS and Occupational Diseases. Deputy Director, Industrial Safety informed the audience that there are 10 asbestos product manufacturing factories that are registered under the Factories Act in Gujarat State. It was pointed out by Jagdish Patel that Schedule 19 of Guj. Factory Rules are not being applied to the units which use asbestos products is a major gap since there are 1000s of factories which are using asbestos products. Mr Vora felicitated Pralhad Malwadkar and Raghunath Manwar for being awarded the 2009 Tribute of Inspiration Award by the US based asbestos victims' organisation: the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organisation. Dr. Jagdish Parikh, Ex-Deputy Director of NIOH, also said a few words on this occasion.
Jagdish Patel of the People's Training and Research Centre (PTRC) gave a presentation to introduce asbestos for the newcomers which included a historical overview of asbestos and various uses of asbestos in different industries across the globe. The presentation also covered various forms of asbestos, the health hazards, a history of asbestos related diseases and the international struggle to ban asbestos.
Madhumita Dutta of Corporate Accountability Desk (CAD) highlighted the nexus between multinational firms, Indian corporations and politicians in the asbestos industry. The presentation showed pictures from different sectors where there is asbestos exposure mining of asbestos, un/loading of imported asbestos, processing of asbestos-based goods, end use of asbestos-based goods and dismantling of asbestos-based products. She discussed how the favourable Government policies make asbestos products more competitive compared with non-asbestos, safer products: dilution of protective measures in trade policies, policy measures that encourage use of asbestos in India even as its use is banned in other countries across the globe and the lack of government support for initiatives that develop alternatives and substitutes for asbestos.
Vipul Pandya of BMS pointed out that 99% of workers in the construction industry are migrant tribal workers and therefore it is urgent to identify workers who could have been exposed to asbestos during the course of their work, document the occupational history of workers and their medical history and start the work of organising such workers and victims of asbestos exposure into a victim's association to fight for their rights to decent working conditions, health benefits, right to compensation etc. He pointed out that a major challenge that needs to be addressed is the fact that most workers are migrant and employed as contract or casual workers and there is no clear employer-employee relationship. Moreover, asbestosis has a long latency period and the disease may not emerge until many years later, by which time the worker may have retired or moved on from the worksite where the exposure occurred. In such cases, establishing causality and fixing responsibility on the employer and getting compensation is nearly impossible.
Most participants expressed their appreciation of the morning session. An activist pointed out that one challenge we need to address is getting favourable references to asbestos removed from primary school science textbooks and replacing it with the real picture about the hazardous nature of the material. Another activist emphasised the need for organising workers and active campaigning to ensure workers rights are protected in hazardous industries.
Pralhad Malwadkar from OSHA Mumbai spoke about the challenges confronting workers in the ESI system. Firstly, the primary doctors in ESI hospitals are unfamiliar with occupational diseases and therefore unable to diagnose occupational diseases and unaware of the need for documenting the occupational history of workers. Secondly, the employees of ESI Corporation are also unfamiliar with occupational diseases, even the legal provisions and the procedure for processing of claims. Thirdly, Sections 51 & 52 of the ESI Act should be amended since it states that the ESI Act is applicable only to an employee. Fourthly, the compensation awarded by the ESI Act is very low and a deterrent for workers as it involves a long struggle for a paltry sum (Rs 80,000 in case of death and Rs 90,000 in case of total disability). Lastly, workers are faced with the challenge of not having their illnesses recognised and diagnosed as occupational diseases.
Raghunath Manwar of OHSA, Ahmadabad shared the struggles of workers from Digvijay Cement Industries and the Torrent Thermal Power Plant (formerly Ahmadabad Electricity Corporation) in getting proper diagnosis and the ongoing fight for compensation. Several workers have been on the same medicines for nearly 15 years and the doctors are still unwilling to recognise their diseases as occupational diseases and to give them better medical care by updating the medicines prescribed to the workers. He also talked about his own experience as a worker in AEC and handling of asbestos. He shared that workers did not know the hazardous nature of the substance and would dip balls of asbestos in water and play games by hitting each other with them. It was felt that the Judgement of the Supreme Court is not being implemented and it has failed in providing the workers adequate protection.
Ravindra Mohite from HCL Union Mumbai shared the history of exposure to asbestos during the course of his tenure of work at HCL. He also pointed out that doctors do not take a worker's illness seriously until it is at an advanced stage. For example, he is himself suffering from 60% asbestosis but because he does not outwardly look sick, no one is willing to accept that he is gravely ill. Ravindra also traced the corporate history of HCL, which was formerly owned by UK based Turner and Newell. Later, they sold its stocks to Rasoi group (HCL) and have now declared bankruptcy. T&N is now owned by US based Federal Mogul. He also shared that for a long time they did not know the hazards of asbestos and used to play with it.
He himself started working in 1973. Since he and his fellow workers did not know the hazards of asbestos, they did not take proper care. On many occasions, they found that the stock of masks had run out and they would have to work without masks. They understood the gravity only after OHSC contacted them and offered medical check up. Union decided to accept the offer. In 2004, 300 workers went through examination. In his long career of 33 years he has not seen any Inspector appointed under Factory Act visiting their unit, he added.
Dr.Nayanjeet Chowdhary from Karamsad Medical College chaired the last session and heard victims' testimonials, who spoke about their illness and difficulty in getting compensation for their disease. Later he pointed out that in the eight years of his study of medicine he had never been taught anything about occupational diseases and it is therefore not difficult to understand why doctors do not have the skills to recognise, diagnose and treat occupational diseases. Therefore one aspect of the campaign should focus on including the study of occupational diseases in the curriculum of medical colleges. He further pointed out that since doctors are also unaware of labour laws such as the ESI and Workman's Compensation Act, they are unable to help the workers by framing their diagnosis and treatment in ways acceptable under the various labour laws that would help workers claim compensation. Therefore, there is need for educating the medical practitioners on both aspects. He added that Jagdish informed him that even if doctors make a query on their diagnosis, it is enough for worker to initiate claim process. If that is so, we are willing to do that.
In the open session, Dr. Parikh pointed out that the model established by PTRC on their work on silicosis in Khambhat could be replicated by people working on asbestos. PTRC has established linkages with Karamsad College, which runs clinic for diagnosis and certifies workers for silicosis, which helps generate scientific data on silicosis. Dr Choudhary talked of establishing OD unit in Karamsad College where factory workers can go for periodical medical check up required under Factory act. Another participant pointed out that this is an issue on which labour unions should agitate and force the companies to give workers access to their own medical records and allow workers to be examined at an independent medical facility outside the company while ensuring that the company and the ESI department both recognise the diagnosis given by the associated medical centre.
Need was expressed for joint action by Social organizations, Trade Unions and Medical professionals. Representatives from Rajasthan were invited to make a survey in Rajasthan. The speaker also introduced a suspect victim of asbestos related disease who was present in the meeting and discussed how such disease could be confirmed. Delegates also expressed the need for more such meetings at regular intervals. Some suggested to prepare educative material in local languages for distribution and posters for display. It was suggested that a panel of doctors should be formed which can examine the patient and certify.
Representative from Union affiliated with Intl. Metal Workers federation active at ship breaking yard in Alang explained how the international pressure has helped the yard. Though the structures have been constructed for asbestos removal, in practice they are not used.
The day ended with Vipul Pandya summarising a few immediate needs that emerged from the meeting:
February 2, 2009
1This event, which took place on January 17, 2009, was organised by the People's Training and Research Centre (PTRC) and Bandkam Mazdoor Sangathan (BMS) and was supported by Building and Wood Workers International (BWI).
2 NTUI: New Trade Union Initiative, CAD: Corporate Accountability Desk.