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They lied to me for 15 years of my life, says asbestosis-afflicted labourer

A worker, who was being exposed to asbestos on a daily basis and was repeatedly assured by factory owners and doctors that everything was fine, was diagnosed with asbestosis by a central agency

During a Diwali break from his hectic factory work last year, 34-year-old Yogesh Sawant suddenly woke up from sleep and mumbled to his wife: ‘Ata Mala He Nahi Karaicha Ahe’ (I don’t want to do this work anymore).

Also read: Mumbai's factories are a death trap for workers and the general public

Yogesh Sawant with his family. Sawant, who struggles even to pronounce asbestosis, said no one at the factory told him what he was exposing himself to. Pics/Sameer Markande
Yogesh Sawant with his family. Sawant, who struggles even to pronounce asbestosis, said no one at the factory told him what he was exposing himself to. Pics/Sameer Markande

When this happened, Sawant, who was working as a labourer in Ashadeep Frictions Ltd at Ambernath, had been undergoing tests for chest pain and breathing problems. Little did he know what was in store for him in the months to come. While the factory management and its medical team kept assuring him there was no cause for worry, Sawant kept exposing himself to the deadly asbestos dust in the factory loom.

Wokers at a unit in Ambernath MIDC
Wokers at a unit in Ambernath MIDC

“The management and their medical staff kept saying there was no cause for worry as test after test came back negative for occupational diseases. But, at some point, he was convinced there was something fishy about the factory work he was doing,” Sawant’s wife Sarala said, with a faraway look in her eyes, sitting in their tiny home at Maralgaon in Kalyan.

Soon Pawar himself chips in, but stumbles over the word asbestosis. “I don’t even know how to pronounce it (asbestosis). For 15 years, I worked in that factory but nobody bothered to even tell me what I was dealing with,” he said.

The family was in for a rude shock when a team of experts from the Union Ministry of Labour descended on their home towards the end of last year and made Sawant undergo X-ray scans and blood tests. Two workers from the factory: Sawant and Manoj Saroj turned out to be the first confirmed cases of the deadly asbestosis disease in Maharashtra.

In all, 13 cases of asbestosis and silicosis were detected by the central agencies in Maharashtra last year alone even as over 2,44,890 tests conducted by 105 certified private doctors between January 2013 and May 30, 2014, reported no occupational disease, including the 13 later found positive by the central teams.

Worse, an inspection of Ashadeep by a state team of the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health (DISH) on February 23, 2012, had found no violations or chemicals or other hazards at the factory. “No contravention. No violations. Cases filed,” it reads.

The factory management did not own up responsibility and allegedly held back details of the case from the government. And it did not provide adequate medical care and compensation to Sawant. In a letter (99/7/ NRDC/ 2013CLI), the central government was informed that the owner was dilly-dallying in giving compensation.

In another scathing letter (DISH/medical/13641-43/9), the agency noted to factory owner Prabhakar Shetty: “You were repeatedly directed to send these two cases to the Workmen’s Compen-sation Commission. But it seems you have refused to follow the directions completely.”
 
Meanwhile, a tired and frustrated Sawant dropped out of work without a notice in March this year. Since then, he has been spending as much as Rs 3,000 a month for his treatment. Saroj has shifted to his village for the time being. “I gave 15 years of my life to that company, but there has been no help from the owners,” Sawant told mid-day.

His final diagnosis reads: Asbestosis-profusion 2/3, t/t. The medical report advises ‘medical surveillance, and detailed clinical examination every six months’. “I have to make ends meet and cannot sit at home without any work. If my daughters get something at least, I’ll be happy. They should get some money so they can take care of themselves should something happen to me”   

Embarrassment
Documents accessed by mid-day under RTI expose the neglected state of affairs within the state’s Directorate of Industrial Safety & Health (DISH), its failure to make owners comply with norms on workers’ safety and compensation, and put a big question mark on its ability to detect occupational diseases.
 
An internal report prepared following the visit of an expert team of the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), confirmed cases which had been rejected by the state’s industrial safety officers. A report (DISH/Medical/3151-64/10), rips apart the private doctors who had failed to detect a single occupational disease.

“These doctors are repeatedly inspecting the factories with our own team that is monitoring situations in the factory. Yet, this visit by NIOH has exposed our weaknesses and left a big question mark over our inspections, supervision, and medical examination methods. This is a big embarrassment for Maharashtra,” reads the internal report prepared by DISH Director V S Moray.  
 
The 100-odd private doctors are monitored by a single government surgeon, who not only authorizes but performs medical examinations as well. The lone government surgeon for Maharashtra, Dr Atul Band, conducted 2,500 tests last year and confirmed the 13 cases highlighted by the NIOH.   “There is a clear nexus of private doctors and factory inspectors.

This nexus is just fooling the people of Maharashtra into believing that all is well in our factories and industries. But unfortunately that is not the case,” he told mid-day. When we repeatedly asked Moray to provide details of industrial cases detected by certified private doctors, Moray said: “This is confidential information and not in the public domain, as much as we want to keep things transparent.”

The NIOH inspection report accessed by mid-day under the RTI Act clearly reveals how factory owners and managers were allowed to go scot-free despite violating norms. The inspections revealed that 23 asbestos factories, host to 2,583 workers, and several other factories in the MMR region were not conducting the mandatory membrane filter test to monitor presence of asbestos fibre in the work environment, and were not even conducting awareness training programmes for the workers.

The inspections found M/s Ashadeep Frictions, M/s Graphics India (Ambernath), Eastwell Asbestos Industries (Ulhasnagar), Hyderabad Industries (Thane), Mechanical Packaging (Tarapur), Nella Asbestos (Dahanu) and Wilson Products (Kolhapur), not carrying out the all-important membrane tests.

Of the seven inspections in Thane, six factories had not organized training programmes for workers — M/s Champion Seals, M/s Mechanical Packaging, M/s Standard Clutches & Spares, M/s Standard Friction, M/s Ashadeep Frictions and Graphics India.  

The inspections found that several other factories — where stone cutting, crushing and glass work is done and popcorn and rice puffs are made — were host to factors causing silicosis.   In all, four cases of silicosis and nine of asbestosis were detected by NIOH.

DISH is doing a follow-up on all these cases. “All these were first found negative by private doctors. We have now ordered an inquiry on them,” said a senior official. According to data from the department, total compensation of Rs 8.46 crore had accrued and an ex-gratia amount of Rs 3.7 crore was paid last year to workers across the state.

Dangerous operations
>> Manufacturing bangles or other articles from cinematograph film and toxic and inflammable solvents
>> Manufacturing asbestos
>> Handling and processing of cotton
>> Manufacturing of dangerous pesticide
>> Manufacturing of carcinogenic dye and manganese
>> Electrolytic plating or oxidation of metal articles through the use of an electrolyte containing acid or chromic compound
>> Manufacture and repair of electric accumulators
>> Glass manufacturing (when lead monoxide is used)
>> Manufacturing and treatment of lead
>> Manufacture or manipulation of nitro or amino compounds (alpha-naphthylamine, beta-naphthylamine, benzidine & its salts, dianisidine and toludine)
>> Cleaning or smoothing of articles by a let of sand metal shot or or grit

Major violations noted at factories
>> At M/s Invil Traders in Bhiwandi, it was found that nearly 1.5 tonne of acetic acid  and hydrochloric acid was being handled by workers manually. They were also not given gear for their hands and feet and aprons, face shields and chemical safety goggles were not provided.

>> At M/s Limbani Salts in Palghar, rules for corrosive chemicals were not complied with, no protective gear was given to workers, wrong methods were used for siphoning of acids and a water sprinkler-cum-eye-wash was not provided.

>> At M/s Agarwal Fasteners, Palghar, new polishing machines were found added to the existing approved plant and wire bundles and raw material were found stored inappropriately. The lid of the centrifuge machine was not interlocked with the rotating cage, giving rise to the possibility of an accident.

>> At M/s Dhanpriya Textile in Tarapur, the factory building was found illegally extended with 14 extra power looms found installed against the approved plan of 70. The factory building was also found extended in two stages to create room for another 16 illegal power looms. No earplugs were provided to workers.

Products manufactured at hazardous factories
>> Skin ointments
>> Plastic crayons
>> Ink pens
>> Canvas Board
>> Acrylic lacquers
>> Armoured cable
>> Home fabrics
>> Playing cards
>> Washing machines
>> Dairy products
>> Polymer
>> Metal hooks/ clips/handles
>> Fasteners
>> Salt
>> Steel plates
>> Corrugated boxes
>> X-Ray machines
>> Pharmaceuticals
>> Decor material
>> Utensils
>> Air bubble rolls
>> Aluminum foils
>> Lighting fixtures
>> Injectable liquids
>> Antibiotics
>> Anti-allergens
>> Auto parts
>> Display signboards
>> Yarn dyes

Killers
Asbestosis is a chronic inflammatory and fibrotic medical condition affecting the parenchymal tissue of the lungs caused by the inhalation and retention of asbestos fibres It usually occurs after high intensity and/or long-term exposure to asbestos and is therefore regarded as an occupational lung disease.

Sufferers may experience severe dyspnea (shortness of breath) and are at an increased risk for certain malignancies, including lung cancer but especially mesothelioma. Silicosis is a form of occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, and is marked by inflammation and scarring in the form of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs.

Silicosis is characterized by shortness of breath, cough, fever, and cyanosis (bluish skin). It may often be misdiagnosed as pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs), pneumonia, or tuberculosis.

Tests recommended
Meth-haemoglobin tests, DALA Test, Audiometry Test, Choline Esterase Enzyme Activity Test, Occult Blood Test, Patch Test, X-Ray, Chest PA, and Lead in blood/urine, SGOT  & SGPT for liver, serum creatinine for Kidney.

Major past accidents in Maharashtra
2013: Five employees of a drug manufacturing company in Tarapur MIDC were crushed to death when a reactor explosion caused the collapse of the three-storey structure housing the plant. Eighteen persons sustained injuries.

2013: A worker was charred to death and three others sustained serious burn injuries after an explosion took place at a chemical factory in MIDC, Dombivli (East).

2013: Three men died and two were seriously injured when a boiler exploded in a godown in Dombivli.

2013: Two workers suffered 90% burns when hot oil gushed out from a pipe at a private industrial unit in Tarapur. According to Boisar police, the incident occurred at the Orient Press, a printing and packaging factory.

2012: Three employees of a pharmaceutical company in Dombivli were severely injured in a boiler blast at the factory. Around 125 residents from the area were treated for burning eyes, vomiting and breathing problems after bromine gas was released into the air following the blast.

2004: Bombay High Court appointed retired judge D R Dhanuka as a commissioner to investigate possible toxic exposure among employees working or having worked for Monsanto India Ltd at its Lonavla and Silvassa plants.

2004: Three employees at the Waste Immunisation Plant in Tarapur, Maharashtra, were exposed to radiation from a small bottle of diluted but highly radioactive waste.

2004: Residents of the Gawanpada township in Chembur complained of breathlessness after a whitish powder was emitted from the Hindustan Petro Chemicals Ltd plant.

2003: 150 villagers in Sangamner, near Nashik, were exposed to hydrochloric acid leaking from the Mangalam Drug & Organic Ltd plant. At least 55 people were admitted to hospital.

2003: A major fire broke out at a chemical warehouse in Bhiwandi. The fire raged for 14 hours and 27 fire engines were needed to put it out

2003: Three persons were killed and two hurt in an explosion at Parakh Food Products in Kurkumbh Industrial Estate near Daund

2003: One person was killed and 12 hospitalised following a gas leak at RPG Life Sciences Ltd’s Pimpri facility.

The other side
Factory owners say complete compliance with rules is impossible in these times of economic hardship. “It is increasingly becoming difficult even to run a factory in the industrial zones, forget paying extra for workers’ welfare and safety, most agree.

Not only do you need to grease the palms of government officials, but even local politicians breathe down your neck. The large list of things we have to comply with and the other complications just take a toll on the management,” said a factory owner from Tarapur.

Many others argue that even if owners are not complying with the rules completely, they should be trusted with greater responsibility to maintain hazardous substances as that will lead to better internal monitoring. “I am not saying we have doing everything right, but it is only the owners who can run a factory properly, not the inspectors.

Business has not been good for two years but, unlike some other firms, we have not cut down on welfare and safety measures,” says Harisoma Mayekar, manager of Ganesh Polychem, a notified MAH factory in Dombivali.   Several others are trying to cut down on storing hazardous chemicals to avoid falling in the MAH category. “Life is difficult if you are a MAH factory,” rues an owner.

Auchtel Products Ltd at Thane was found not complying with crucial conditions related to handling of Methyl Chloride. While manager S K Sharma denies having knowledge of the inspection, the report clearly marks his presence.  “We had a plant manager in whose presence the particular inspection was carried out.

He is no more. What the report has said about handling of Methyl Chloride is because our staff was not present to explain the ground realities to the inspectors. Later on, we clarified and they were satisfied,” said Sharma.

47,000: Number of factories in Maharashtra
361: Major Hazard Accident (MAH) factories
23.43lakh: Workers employed in the state’s factories

199: Fatal factory accidents last year
2,212: Non-fatal accidents
5,000: Inspections carried out across the state in 2014
220: Total number of inspections in Mumbai and MMR

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