Published in Dawn October 16th, 2016
IT may sound like a strange word for many of us urban dwellers, yet for those involved in the world of hazardous work it raises alarm — silicosis is an incurable lung disease that leads to respiratory failure and death.
Caused by inhaling silica dust while engaged in industrial operations such as mining, quarrying, sandblasting, rock-drilling, road construction and stone masonry, silicosis afflicts tens of millions of workers and kills thousands of people every year worldwide, according to ILO. The silver lining is that the disease is preventable and thus European countries, the US and Canada have reduced its incidence to a minimum. In South Asia, however, including Pakistan, silicosis mortality rate remains very high.
As there had been no specific law, to date, to deal with silicosis in Pakistan, the recent news of a draft law on the health and safety of workers exposed to silica dust warrants some attention.
For decades, labour and human rights activists and researchers have raised concerns over the lack of safety measures in mines and quarries, and workers’ severe health issues as a consequence. The rising incidences of silicosis affliction and mortality was brought to the fore when the members of the Public Lawyers Front filed a petition in the Lahore High Court, citing cases of silicosis in Gujranwala quarries in April 2014.
The Supreme Court took up the case suo motu in July 2014. Since then, things have been moving, albeit slowly, towards addressing this crucial issue. The court directed the concerned departments and officials in the provinces to come up with situation analyses, identification of causes, adequate legislation and remedial courses to reduce silicosis affliction and mortality rates.
The Punjab Labour and Human Resource Department prepared and finalised the Punjab Hazardous Occupation (Silicon) Rules in a tripartite consultation held in December 2014. The rules were notified in the public gazette in October 2015 seeking comments. The other provinces have so far only submitted reports. Apparently, the draft law on silicosis, the final version of the Punjab Hazardous Occupation (Silicon) Rules, has yet to be passed and enacted.
Affliction and death by silicosis due to disregard of health and safety measures in the mining industry is not just a provincial concern. It is a national issue and must be dealt with at the federal level through a national plan, as advised by the ILO and WHO in 1995. The ILO/WHO Global Programme for the Elimination of Silicosis identified the elimination of silicosis as a priority area for action in occupational health, urging member countries to give it top priority.
Under this initiative, the country is required to establish a national programme for the elimination of silicosis complemented by a national action plan. The country has to develop a consensus policy document, focusing on the prevention of silicosis as a priority in occupational health and safety. So far Brazil, Chile, China, India, Peru, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam have all established national programmes with the joint support of the ILO and WHO.
It is time for the federal government to take the lead and establish a national programme, similar to the National TB Control Programme, to protect workers in all four provinces against silicosis. Elimination of silicosis would require fewer resources than the TB programme as the cost of primary prevention — ie dust control, use of appropriate technologies, ventilation and local exhaust, process enclosure, wet techniques and substitution of less hazardous materials — would be borne by the industrial enterprises. Also, the target population — workers in hazardous occupations — is limited compared to the population suffering from TB.
The main cost would go into strengthening and establishing a proper labour inspection system, training inspectors for surveillance of workplaces, organising the reporting system on silicosis occurrence, and placing qualified doctors for early detection and treatment of silicosis among workers. An effective prevention strategy should be devised through tripartite consultations with the employers’ organisations and the workers’ unions.
The centre must not shirk from its responsibility to protect citizens from a preventable disease. Workers are an important pillar of the economy; a country can never progress without recognising its labour.
Under the 18th Amendment, the Federal Legislative List empowers parliament to legislate on labour. Matters relating to international treaties and conventions also come under the federal legislature. The centre needs to come up with a broader national legislative occupational health and safety framework based on constitutional rights and international labour standards. What is needed is strong political will, the absence of which is described by ILO as the most significant blockage “to the effective development, transfer and implementation of knowledge on hazard prevention”.