Less than a couple of months after the May 7 gas leak from the plant of LG Polymers, another gas leak occurred at a chemical factory in Visakhapatnam on June 29, resulting in the death of two workers and the hospitalisation of 4 workers.
Two days later, on July 1, 2020, a boiler blast took place at the thermal power plant of Neyveli Lignite Corporation causing the death of six workers and severe injuries to 17 workers. It was the second such incident in the plant in the space of two months. On July 5, 2020, a fire broke out at a candle factory in Ghaziabad district resulting in the deaths of at least eight workers.
These accidents are among the series of industrial accidents that have taken place in the country after factories were permitted to resume operations after the relaxation of lockdown measures after the first phase of the nation-wide lockdown imposed on 24 March 2020. Some of the accidents took place when factories re-started their operations. The accident at LG Polymers, Visakhapatnam involving the leakage of styrene monomer that resulted in the death of 12 persons and affected the health of about 3,000 people from five nearby villages and settlements too occurred when the plant re-started operations on May 7, 2020.
The spate of industrial accidents in the country over the last couple of months underscore the need for the effective enforcement of laws relating to occupational safety and health. The Factories Act, 1948 is the main occupational safety and health related law in the country.
It is applicable to more than 3,50,000 registered factories including over 6000 units carrying out hazardous processes. About 2,000 such units are categorised as major hazard installations as they handle hazardous chemicals in large quantities.
Inspectors are appointed by state governments for enforcing the requirements of the statute. The responsibility for the prevention of accident hazards lies with the occupier or the employer for the most part. At the same time, Inspectors appointed under the Act play a crucial role in ensuring safety and preventing accidents. Inspectors can check the efficacy of the safety measures taken by the employer in the course of operations as well as the control measures to be taken in the event of an accident during their inspection visits.
Prior to the commencement of operations and also whenever there is a change in the quantity of hazardous chemicals involved in the manufacturing process, an occupier of a factory needs to submit a site notification report.
The Inspector needs to check the prevalence of the causes for major accidents identified in the site notification report and the adequacy of the measures taken to prevent major accidents. The Inspector can issue directions for improvement of the preventive measures if necessary. Occupiers of major hazard installations are required to submit periodic safety reports containing information relating to hazard assessment and mitigation measures. The Inspector needs to examine the adequacy of the prevention, control and mitigation measures as enumerated in the safety report while visiting the site.
There have been instances where proper hazard assessment is not done before re-starting operations after a shut down. As a result, potential hazards remain unidentified leading to accidents.
A safety audit of factories engaged in hazardous processes needs to be carried out by an independent expert at least once in a year.
The purpose of a safety audit is to bring to the notice of the top management the weaknesses in the system of managing safety so as to take appropriate corrective action. The safety audit report is a very important document to ascertain the shortcomings in the management of hazards and risks. It should contain observations, findings and recommendations regarding the safety management system in respect of the industrial activity undertaken.
The Inspector needs to examine whether the occupier has implemented the recommendations contained in the audit report in the true spirit of compliance with the statutory requirements. A complete safety audit of the entire factory also needs to be carried out before a factory is re-started.
This has been specified in the guidelines issued by the National Disaster Management Authority for the re-starting of chemical industries pursuant to the LG Polymers accident on May 7, 2020. It would be prudent on the part of the Inspectors to conduct surprise inspection of major hazard installations and other factories carrying on hazardous manufacturing processes to check the ground conditions in order to prevent major accidents.
A safety audit by independent experts cannot and must not be a substitute for statutory inspection.
Occupiers of major accident hazards installations are also required to prepare on-site emergency plans. An emergency mock drill should be carried out every six months and a report about this needs to be submitted to the authority.
The Inspector needs to examine the efficacy of the on-site emergency plan based on the report of the mock drill and check whether the occupier has updated the on-site emergency plan accordingly.
In any emergency, communication with the people inside as well as outside is very crucial for taking control and mitigation measures. In the case of LG Polymers, the public siren could not be activated at the time when an emergency situation occurred during the night hours. This weakness could have been noticed had a proper mock-drill been conducted and had the concerned Inspector thoroughly examined the mock drill report.
The Joint Monitoring Committee that looked into the LG Polymers accident pointed out lapses in accountability on the part of authorities clearly mentioning that periodic inspection is the primary responsibility of the Factories, Industry and Boilers Department.
Clearly, there is a need for regular and through inspection by Inspectors of factories engaged in hazardous manufacturing processes to ensure the safety of the persons employed there as well as the general public. Even in the case of factories engaged in non-hazardous manufacturing processes, there is a need for regular and through inspection in order to ensure that the machinery, devices, boilers and pressure vessels used there are in a safe condition and that necessary fire safety measures are in place.
The Indian Boilers Act, 1923 is another important safety related legislation. It regulates the safety of boilers used in industries. It makes the registration of boilers used in power plants and industrial applications mandatory. It also requires boilers to be certified for use for a specified period by the Certifying Authority after following a due procedure of inspection.
A boiler is required to be inspected by the Certifying Authority prior to renewal of its certificate and also prior to its use after an accident. Boilers in industries and power plants should be operated only under the supervision of a certified Boiler Attendant.
Boilers operate at very high pressure and a blast or explosion can have devastating effect on human lives as well as property. Therefore, inspection of boilers on a regular basis is very critical for ensuring safety.
With a view to permit the ease of doing business, the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade has permitted self-certification and third party inspection of boilers for their certification for further use. Such measures that whittle down the system of regular inspection are fraught with risks.
The government of India has ratified the Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No.81) of the International Labour Organization
that mandates a sound system of labour inspection for all industrial workplaces.
However, on the ground that a reform of the system of inspection is necessary to ensure a hassle-free industrial environment and end “inspector raj” by reducing unnecessary interference by inspecting staff, over the last five years, the Central government has encouraged state governments to adopt a new system of inspection at the state-level based on the risk profile of industries.
It requires physical inspection in the case of high risk industries. Self-certification is permitted for low risk industries and third party certification in the case of medium risk industries. The allocation of inspectors to factories is based on a randomised web-based system of selection.
Complaint-driven inspection is one of the features of the new system but even that requires the approval of higher authorities. The new system thus minimizes inspection. The Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations of the ILO has pointed out that any measure taken to limit the number of inspections is incompatible with the main objective of labour inspection which is the protection of workers.
It has emphasised that workplaces liable to labour inspection should be inspected as often and as thoroughly as is necessary to ensure the effective application of the relevant legal provisions.
Apart from measures to limit inspection, amendments made by some state governments to the Factories Act increasing the threshold numbers for the application of the Act in turn restricting the coverage of the Act also pose a threat to workplace safety.
Likewise, measures taken to exempt non-hazardous category factories and micro, small and medium industries from inspection under the Factories Act endanger the safety of the workers employed there. The right to health of workers that implies safe working conditions has been held to be encompassed in the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution of India.
Measures to do away with or limit inspection under the Factories Act and Boilers Act infringe on the fundamental right of the workers to good health.
In the light of the frequency of industrial accidents in recent times, there is an urgent need to revisit and revamp the system of labour inspection that is currently in place and to ensure that effective safety inspection of workplaces is regularly conducted. In addition, it is necessary to strengthen the system of inspection in terms of human resources and professional competence.
There is also an urgent need to bring all workplaces under the coverage of laws relating to occupational safety and health. Such measures are imperative to ensure the safety of workers as well as the general public.
Vinod Sant is a former Director General of the National Safety Council, India. Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan is an advocate specialising in labour law, practicing in the Madras high court.