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Dangerous dust - Personal Injury Solicitor Tracey Graham discusses

We have seen, in recent weeks, how both a Bangladesh Garment Factory fire and a Bangladesh building collapse have taken their toll on the workers of that developing country. It is indeed both tragic and ironic that the ‘working class’ of that country, such a contributor to development, is the one to pay the ultimate cost of that development.

In other developing countries too, despite environmental laws that seek to protect, if poor building structure does not kill, workers often run the risk of contracting illness and disease by exposure to other environmental hazards, and particularly dust.  

Workers in India run the risk of Silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhalation of silica dust in occupations such as cement, glass and brickmaking, quarrying, mining, road laying and all aspects of construction. Every year, Silicosis kills about 30,000 people in India, according to the World Health Organisation. Many of them die without treatment; their families seldom get due compensation.

Silicosis is the most common occupational lung disease worldwide; it occurs everywhere, but is especially common in developing countries. For example, China reported more than 24,000 deaths due to Silicosis each year between 1991 and 1995. Recently, Silicosis in Turkish denim sandblasters was detected as a new cause of Silicosis due to recurring, poor working conditions.

Silicosis was once known as miners’ disease: an occupational hazard of inhaling dust at work for many years. In India, ancillary infections like TB can complicate matters. The deaths can be painful. Silicosis is incurable as the lung damage is irreversible, and all that treatment can do is address the ancillary infections and alleviate symptoms. Where previously it was a disease prevalent in the regions of western and central India and associated with mining and regional industries such as slate, pencil and chalk manufacture, with rampant development and construction work in the country, Silicosis cases are now seen in all regions. It is the construction work of the developing India, and all its feeder industries, that now expose new workers to Silicosis.
In response to a direction from the Supreme Court in 2009, the National Human Rights Commission has made several recommendations on preventive, remedial and rehabilitative measures and it has been asked to work with all stakeholders including companies, workers’ unions, the Health Ministries, State Governments and other agencies. Tackling occupational diseases requires the participation of all of these agencies, but in a country where corruption is rampant there remains a struggle to encourage the government to implement its own laws; so says Samit Kumar Carr, Secretary General of the Occupational Safety & Health Association of Jharkhand, a state in eastern India.   

There are further hampering factors in India: many workers are not registered so they are not entitled to any medical care or compensation; workers live and work in so called ‘vulnerable’ districts; employers are often reluctant or unwilling to arrange for treatment.

The International Labour Organisation (a United Nations Agency) aims to eliminate Silicosis globally by 2030. That will be difficult for India particularly as it is so far behind the developed world in terms of workplace legislation and employer acceptance. Additionally, the average lifespan of labourers in industries with the risk of Silicosis is 35 years, and workers who have been exposed to dust for up to seven years are certain to have the disease, therefore.

NB: In Great Britain, we can be reassured that exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) has a workplace exposure limit (WEL), which contains exposure below a set limit, preventing excessive exposure. The WEL for RCS is 0.1 mg/m3 expressed as an 8-hour time-weighted average. Exposure to RCS is also subject to the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH).

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By Personal Injury Solicitor Tracey Graham.