Over 130 workers died in industrial accidents in Gujarat during the first seven months of 2020, of which 57 per cent were reported in four months after the Covid lockdown was lifted in phases in the state.
According to the office of the Director Industrial Safety and Health (DISH), under the Ministry of Labour and Employment of the state government, a total of 89 industrial accidents happened between January and July 2020 across Gujarat, in which 130 workers died. Of these, 51 accidents happened between April and July, when the industries were reopening after the lockdown, in which 74 workers died.
While April and May saw six and nine deaths respectively, the highest number of industrial accidents in a single month in this year occurred in June and July. In each of these two months, 18 accidents happened in which 37 and 22 workers died, respectively.
When asked why there were industrial accidents after the lockdown where industries reopened following safety protocols prescribed by the government, P M Shah, director of DISH, told The Indian Express, “The number of accidents between April and July 2020 is less compared to the corresponding period last year. Our stress has been on bringing down the number of industrial accidents.”
One of the biggest industrial accidents that happened in Gujarat after the lifting of the lockdown was in a chemical factory called Yashashvi Rasayan Pvt Ltd at Dahej in June where a blast in a boiler killed 10 workers and injured 50.
The accident was so big that DISH not only closed the unit, but also ordered safety audit of all factories in Dahej. Seven employees, including the fire safety head, was booked by the police with IPC offenses pertaining to culpable homicide not amounting to murder, causing gracious hurt, negligent conduct with fire and other charges. The Gujarat High Court in August rejected anticipatory bail applications of the seven officials of the company.
There was a major fire which burned down an entire Japanese firm manufacturing diapers at Sanand. There were no casualties, but the fire could be controlled after more than 24 hours as fire tenders had to be called all the way from Ahmedabad due to lack of fire brigade station within the Sanand industrial estate.
In a bid to reduce industrial accidents and ensure safety of workers, DISH has launched a “special month-long safety campaign” between August 17 and September 15. During this period, state government officials will conduct inspections, hold mock drills and webinars to create awareness about industrial safety.
“Our department is in charge of enforcement. However, enforcement is not the only solution for ensuring safety. During the safety awareness drive, our focus will be on chemical industry and on units that have been classified as Major Accident Hazard Installations or MAH,” said Shah.
There 529 units that are marked as MAH and there are about 7,000 small and big chemical units in Gujarat. The highest number of factories classified as hazardous are in Bharuch, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Surat, Kutch and Valsad districts.
“During this month our officers will focus fully on industrial safety work and will not involve themselves in routine administrative jobs,” he added. Bharuch being a chemical hub will also see a special online webinar on the issue of industrial safety.
According to the state’s labour department, about Rs 8.71 crore needs to be paid as compensation to the next of kin of 130 workers who died in industrial accidents in 2020. However, the compensation has been delayed due to the effects of the lockdown.
“After March, most of the courts closed down due to the lockdown. Compensation under the Workers Compensation Act is awarded by the labour court after the factories deposit the compensation amount. The labour court is currently closed. The second authority to award compensation is ESIC (Employees’ State Insurance Corporation) where the process is on,” said Shah.
Ajit Shah, president of Sanand Industrial Association (SIA), said that their request for a fire brigade station has been pending for the last six years. “We were then told that there is no possibility of large fires or accidents taking place at Sanand GIDC as it is largely a manufacturing zone and hence fire tenders can be summoned from either Sanand town or Ahmedabad. Since 2014, three major fires have already happened, the last one completely gutted the Japanese firm. There is also no system in place to evacuate casualties if a major accident occurs.” After the last fire incident, Sanand GIDC is very close to getting land allotted for a fire station, official sources said.
Industry sources also said that due to high density of industries in Gujarat, safety awareness programmes conducted by the government does reach them.
However, in the last two years, industrial accidents in Gujarat have come down. From 230 and 236 accidents in 2017 and 2018, the numbers have fallen to 188 in 2019.