Between 2015-2018, 6,500 workers died on duty at Indian factories, mines, construction sites, and ports. That’s the official statistics, but some victims may not have been declared and counted. If we look at factories in isolation, does India have a manufacturing safety problem?
How unsafe are factories in India?
I visited India to explore some key manufacturing areas in June ’22. I went to factories doing forging, casting, metal machining, and other processes that are traditionally dangerous for workers. And I noticed that, despite the relatively high quality of manufacturing in some of the facilities I visited, there seemed to be very few preventive systems for ensuring work safety.
What do I mean? The ground was slippery in several key places; personal protective equipment (safety shoes, gloves, masks, glasses, ear plugs…) was seldom worn; machinery did not always have the necessary guards; etc.
You might assume that mines would be responsible for most worker deaths, but not so in India. In this data of 2015-18 from the Indian ministry of labour factory setting deaths are top with 80%:
Common causes of death and injury are fire, explosions, electrocution, and machinery and motor vehicle accidents. What’s more, the numbers could be even higher, as, according to this article, ‘many deaths go unreported or may be termed as injuries, if the person dies after two weeks of the accident, and the actual numbers could be higher.’
Since 2018 India’s safety record is still patchy. Sadly, there was a deadly denim factory fire in Ahmedabad in early 2020 that killed 7 textile workers. Despite being a major factory supplying such names as Ralph Lauren, Zara, Wrangler, and Primark, the factory had no alarm and only one exit accessible by ladder alone:
Ashim Roy, President of the Mill Mazdoor Panchayat Union (MMP) in Gujarat says, “The Nandan Denim fire shows the gross failure of regulation in this massive denim hub production for global brands. Labour, fire and safety, and building codes have all been violated. Global brands are equally responsible for the safety of their supply chains and for the compensation of the affected workers in the factory.”
As recently as August 2022, over 100 women working at an apparel unit in Andhra Pradesh’s Anakapalle district became ill after inhaling poisonous gas. Alarmingly, this was the second gas leak incident there in 2 months, with 300 falling ill just 2 months earlier!
In July ’22, two workers were killed as a gas line exploded in a factory in Rohtak, IMT.
All it takes is a quick Google search to see that there are quite a few accidents.
Does India have a law governing safety in factories?
Yes. The Occupational Safety, Health And Working Conditions Code, 2020 is legislation meant to ensure humane and just working conditions covering for establishments with 10+ workers (and superseding former individual legislations for): factories, mines, contract labor, motor transport workers, and so forth.
This is a national law and applies to full-time employees and contractors who are both defined as ‘workers.’
Let’s look at the wording of the sections most closely related to manufacturing safety in India:
Occupational safety and health (ch.4)
In Chapter 4.18 of the code the following point is made about occupational safety and health:
Physical, chemical, biological and any other hazards to be dealt with for the working life of employee to ensure to the extent feasible on the basis of the best available evidence or functional capacity, that no employee will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity even if such employee has regular exposure to such hazards;
Employers are obliged to appraise and monitor any potential safety risks.
Health, safety, and working conditions (ch. 5)
Chapter 5.23 focuses on health, safety, and working conditions.
The employer shall be responsible to maintain in his establishment such health, safety and working conditions for the employees as may be prescribed by the Central Government. (2) Without prejudice to the generality of the power conferred under sub-section (1), the Central Government may prescribe for providing all or any of the following matters in the establishment or class of establishments, namely:—
(i) cleanliness and hygiene;
(ii) ventilation, temperature and humidity;
(iii) environment free from dust, noxious gas, fumes and other impurities;
(iv) adequate standard of humidification, artificially increasing the humidity of the air, ventilation and cooling of the air in work rooms;
(v) potable drinking water;
(vi) adequate standards to prevent overcrowding and to provide sufficient space to employees or other persons, as the case may be, employed therein;
(vii) adequate lighting;
(viii) sufficient arrangement for latrine and urinal accommodation to male, female and transgender employee separately and maintaining hygiene therein;
(ix) effective arrangements for treatment of wastes and effluents;
and (x) any other arrangement which the Central Government considers appropriate.
Factories (Ch. 7)
An interesting point in the case of factories is that (7.85):
Every occupier of a factory involving any hazardous process shall— (a) maintain accurate and up-to-date health records or, as the case may be, medical records, of the workers in the factory who are exposed to any chemical, toxic or any other harmful substances which are manufactured, stored, handled or transported and such records shall be accessible to the workers subject to such conditions as may be prescribed by the State Government; (b) appoint persons who possess prescribed qualifications and experience in handling hazardous substances and are competent to supervise such handling within the factory and to provide at the working place all the necessary facilities for protecting the workers in the manner prescribed by the State Government
The same goes for hazardous operations, too, such as using machines.
All this is rather basic. It is far behind comparable regulations in many other countries.
However, as you can see from the news stories above, the law clearly hasn’t been complied with all of the time, even in the case of large factories, because workers, unfortunately, have been injured and killed in fairly large numbers by unsafe working conditions.
Are many Indian companies certified to ISO 45001?
Many importers who are sourcing suppliers and are concerned with the OHS standards in their supply chain look for an ISO 45001 certification because this demonstrates a commitment to manufacturing safety.
ISO 45001:2018 is gained by businesses that are committed to protecting their employees from injury and disease caused by accidents in the workplace. They put in place an Occupational Health and Safety management system relevant to their unique situation to minimize risks. The emphasis is on senior management to implement a culture of health and safety management and engage staff in taking part. They will also pinpoint benefits from such an OH&S system, such as lower insurance premiums, happier staff, and more productivity due to fewer staff absences due to injury.
It’s fair to say that China has far more certified suppliers than India with >120,000 certified factories in comparison to India’s 5,000+ (based on data from 2020). In fact, Italy and the UK have more, too, and they’re far smaller countries.
It shows that not many Indian companies, in comparison with others, have structured their management systems to minimize health & safety risks for their employees.
What happens if your Indian supplier suffers from safety problems?
Accidents can happen no matter what systems are put in place, but if your supplier is found to be negligent this can blow back onto you, their customer. Here are the two most common ways it can impact you:
- Disruption of your supply – their operations might be shut down, and their company might even go out of business (think of a fire that kills people and burns all the inventory).
- Your brand name tarnished – the press might report you as indirectly involved. Journalists will ask why your products are made in an “unregulated sweatshop, putting people at risk just to save a few cents”.
Will it get better in the future?
In the long run, as the country develops and sells an increasing share of its products abroad, certainly.
One simply needs to look at China’s factories. They have come a long way in the past 20 years. The major factors behind this improvement have been:
- Government regulations got stricter and stricter over time, with regular visits of local government inspectors (especially for fire prevention, but also the management of dangerous chemicals, manufacturing and maintenance of large pressure vessels, etc.);
- The difficulty of hiring operators once a factory is known in its neighborhood as a dangerous place to work;
- The increasing concern of factory workers for their health;
- And, finally, pressure from customers (and social auditors) — but this hasn’t been the primary motivator.
The question is, how fast will India improve its health & safety record? Society is changing fast and mindsets are evolving, so we tend to be optimistic.
As a buyer, what can you do? You obviously don’t want a factory making your products to catch fire. You need to make sure your supplier base — especially the facilities where dangerous operations take place — knows that employees’ safety is important to you. And you can apply pressure so they take positive steps over time.
When sourcing Indian suppliers, doing due diligence before signing anything is as important as ever.
- Do new supplier identification to find appropriate suppliers for your needs.
- Perform a background check on shortlisted suppliers.
- Conduct an on-site factory audit to confirm your chosen supplier’s Quality, Environmental, and/or Social Compliance Systems.
Your auditor will be able to report on the factory’s manufacturing safety measures and standards, which is certainly one criterion you may use to judge whether they’re a good fit for your future cooperation.
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