Occupational Health and Safety Issues

In Pune, waste pickers are largely women, and to some extent, children. Their work of collecting recyclable waste like paper, plastic, leather, metal etc, helps in managing solid waste in the city. This in turn helps in keeping the environment clean, saves money from recycling various products and in conserving natural resources. However their occupation brings them into contact with a large variety of physical, chemical and biological hazards. Those who help keep our environment healthy are themselves the victim of a range of health

Hazardous nature of waste:

  • Waste may be contaminated with fecal material. This includes biological pathogens such as parasites and bacteria related to the gastro-intestinal tract, which can be passed from hands to the mouth. 
  • Waste pickers often sort through parts of hospital waste. This can be hazardous in terms of biological and chemical contamination through exposure to used syringes, dressings, discarded medicines and sometimes body parts.
  • Industrial waste may include toxic materials such as heavy metals and their associated health effects. 
  • Edible materials in the waste can be hazardous when eaten. This can lead to food poisoning and gastro-intestinal problems.
  • Sharp objects can cause cuts, leading to tetanus or other infections. 

Environmental Risks 
Waste can also contaminate the air, water and soil of the environment in which waste pickers live. These workers often live in slums (informal settlements) which are not serviced by local municipalities. They are, therefore, often doubly exposed to the environmental hazards of  the waste listed above. 

With the ever-growing population in the world, problems in housing and overcrowding are the obvious outcomes. With the increasing growth of population in Pune the number of slums are increasing – a complex development issues shared with many other cities. 

Occupational Health and Safety

Joint International Labor organisation and World Health Organisation Committee’s definition of occupational health

“Occupational health should aim at: the promotion and maintenance of the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations; the prevention amongst workers of departures from health caused by their working conditions; the protection of workers in their employment from risks resulting from factors adverse to health; the placing and maintenance of the worker in an occupational environment adapted to his physiological and psychological capabilities; and, to summarize: the adaptation of work to man and of each man to his job.”

Note: This definition has been adopted by the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH) and features in the 2002 update of the International Code of Ethics for Occupational Health Professionals

Key principles of Occupational Health and Safety

  • A national system for occupational safety and health must be established.
  • A national programme on occupational safety and health must be formulated. 
  • Social partners (that is, employers and workers) and other stakeholders must be consulted. 
  • Occupational safety and health programmes and policies must aim at both prevention and protection. 
  • Continuous improvement of occupational safety and health must be promoted.
  • Information is vital for the development and implementation of effective programmes and policies. 
  • Health promotion is a central element of occupational health practice.
  • Occupational health services covering all workers should be established.
  • Compensation, rehabilitation and curative services must be made available to workers who suffer occupational injuries, accidents and work related diseases. 
  • Education and training are vital components of safe, healthy working environments.
  • Workers, employers and competent authorities have certain responsibilities, duties and obligations. 
  • Policies must be enforced. 

(Taken from Alli, B. (2008) Fundamental principles of occupational health and safety, ILO, Geneva)

Other hazards: 

  • Carrying heavy material over long distances may be associated with muscular/skeletal problems.
  • Waste provides an ideal habitat for disease vectors including flies, other insects and rats.
  • In their work waste pickers are in direct competition with dogs and pigs for the waste materials; this sometimes leads to dog bites and the associated threat of rabies. 
  • On dump sites, and in some roadside bins, fires are either lit to reduce the volume of materials or occur spontaneously because of the presence of methane and other gases. These can be hazardous in terms of burns and smoke inhalation. 

Indirect environmental hazards: 

  • Weather conditions can be problematic during the wet season when flooding may lead to fecal materials becoming washed into domestic waste in the street. Climatic extremes may also lead to health problems for those waste-picking. 
  • Harassment is something most waste pickers report among the negative aspects of their work. This comes in the form of sexual harassment of females by males, hounding by police, local residents and sometimes competition from other waste pickers over waste materials. 

Other issues
In slums, issues like crime, human rights violations and accidents are widely prevalent. Furthermore, a major issue noted is the health status of slum dwellers. People live in poverty, without means to maintain a hygienic lifestyle, making them susceptible to a number of health problems ranging from infectious diseases, mental health issues, reproductive health problems, nutrition related problems and even chronic diseases. Crowded living conditions also make it easy for outbreaks of infectious diseases and the availability and accessibility of the health care system is largely disproportionate to the needs of the people. 

Occupational Safety and Health in India

​The Government of India has enacted statutes relating to Occupational Safety & Health (OSH) at workplaces namely

  • The Mines Act, 1952
  • The Factories Act, 1948
  • Dock Workers (Safety, Health and Welfare) Act, 1986
  • The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996
  • The Dangerous Machines (Regulation) Act, 1983
  • The Insecticides Act, 1968  
  • The Shops and Establishments Act of State Governments
  • The Beedi and Cigar Workers’ (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966;
  • The Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000 notified under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986
  • The Manufacture, Storage & Import of Hazardous Chemicals Rules, 1989 
  • The Electricity Act, 2003 

At present, comprehensive safety and health statutes for regulating OSH at work places exist only in respect of the four sectors namely, mining, factories, ports, and construction. Occupational Safety and Health is one of the subjects allotted to Ministry of Labour & Employment under the Government of India Allocation of Business Rules. The Ministry of Labour &Employment, Govt. of India & Labour Departments of the States and Union Territories are responsible for the safety & health of the workers.

(Taken from Planning Commission Working group report 2012-17)