People do not go to work to be blown into smithereens by ill-maintained boilers or be burnt alive by chemical fires. “Take care” and “be safe” are often the last words exchanged with one’s family before he or she leaves home for work each day. Little do families know that their dear ones will be spending the next many hours in death chambers camouflaged as workplaces.
Callous, incompetent and corrupt government departments in collusion with employers have never had the capacity to address the subject of health and safety at the workplace. The die is clearly, and criminally, cast against the much exploited industrial workforce.
A decree of collective death sentence perpetually awaits millions of workers who must choose between hazardous work or starvation. It is therefore not surprising that major industrial accidents occurring almost on a daily basis, consuming hundreds of precious lives.
Considering that we are trapped in an unenviable situation-”Baney hain ahl-e-hawas muddai bhi, munsif bhi;/Kise wakil karen, kis se munsifi chahen,” to quote Faiz – what could be done to bring sanity and safety to the workplace in Pakistan?
Let us begin by understanding how other countries manage health and safety (H&S) at the workplace. The law in the UK requires employers to undertake specific H&S responsibilities. The employer must establish a documented system with respect to health and safety at work.
It must include assessment of all risks, taking suitable preventive measures and providing training and equipment to employees on how to deal with hazards and emergency situations. The employers must also ensure that sufficient emergency exits are provided and that they remain free from obstructions.
The United States has a dedicated and independent organisation, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for setting and enforcing OHS standards. In Canada the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes and supports workplace H&S while provincial labour departments ensure enforcement of law.
Health and safety at the workplace in Pakistan is essentially driven by the 1934 Factories Act-a document to which the Islamic Republic has been unable to add a single page of value or substance. But even the antique 1934 Act had the good sense of including eight specific fire-related requirements, not one of which was enforced in the two factories that were gutted in Lahore and in Karachi.
Essentially the current H&S enforcement mechanisms can only be described as either non-existent or being in a state of total collapsed. It is therefore best to neither expect nor invest any more in flogging the dead horse.
Pakistan needs to create a new and independent Occupational Health and Safety Commission for setting and enforcing occupational health and safety standards throughout Pakistan. This must be done by an act of parliament.
If our parliament can make laws in a matter of hours to protect one individual from contempt of court, then it can certainly take a few days to pass a law that will protect millions of men and women from constant exposure to ill-health, injury and death.
Provinces can have their own programmes which must meet or exceed the standards set by the commission. The commission must be staffed by educated professionals who understand this subject and who have never been even in close proximity to the labour inspectors of the Pakistani government.
It must be governed by a tripartite council representing government, employers and labour. The commission must operate on the concept of Plan, Do, Check, Improve (PDCI) cycle and have the power to close down a factory not meeting H&S requirements. Needless to say, there has to be completely new and comprehensive H&S legislation to replace the 1934 Factories Act.
The essentials of H&S can be described in seven simple steps: Risk assessment for each task, equipment and location; controls for elimination or reduction of risks; compliance with H&S legislation; provision of protective equipment and training to all workers on the hazards and risks involved in a particular kind of work; creation and rehearsing of plans to manage emergency situations; reporting and investigation into incidents; and monitoring of the entire H&S system.
These are easy and completely implementable tasks, provided the employers understood that the safety needs of workers are the same as that of their own children.
The Karachi Baldia Factory fire that took nearly 300 lives was an entirely preventable accident. Not a single minister or bureaucrat had the moral courage to tender his resignation. Refuge has been taken behind the six investigation committees appointed by the Sindh High Court, the Labour Department, the commissioner of Karachi, the chief minister of Sindh, the FIA and the police chief.
These committees have little capacity to undertake this task and will only follow in the footsteps of the Benazir Bhutto case, to demonstrate how not to carry out an investigation. The only silver lining will be the savings involved in not inviting Scotland Yard and a $5 million United Nations investigation team. After all, the 300 “or so” dead were ordinary, unimportant and nameless citizens.
A state is no longer relevant when it counts its dead in such approximate numbers. Perhaps there is a need to revisit our priorities in line with the famous words of Booker T Washington: “Dignify and glorify common labour. It is at the bottom of life that we must begin, not at the top.”
The writer is a management systems consultant and writes on social issues.