The latest labour force survey of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) reports that 58.1 million people are employed in different occupational sectors of the country. In 2013, 87.1 per cent of workers were employed in informal sectors like agriculture. Surprisingly, most employees operate under poor working conditions and in the absence of occupational health and safety standards.
Another study revealed that about 79.52 per cent of the occupational injured workers were in 40-59 age group and about 73.26 per cent of the accidents causing injury to hands, feet, torso, arms and eyes resulted in different forms of disability. All the respondents in the study suffered from occupational hazards - 75.24 per cent of total injured workers faced hand, feet, arm, eye, face and head injuries among which 27.72 per cent, 18.81 per cent, 7.92 per cent and 5.94 per cent of the total injury occurred in hands, feet, eyes and head respectively and 24.76 per cent of the injured workers suffered injury in other parts of the body.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), almost 11,700 workers suffer fatal accidents and a further 24,500 workers die annually from work-related diseases across all sectors in Bangladesh. The global statistic revealed that work-related diseases result in more than 2.0 million fatalities out of 2.3 million fatalities caused worldwide every year. Another 8.0 million workers suffer injuries at work often resulting in permanent disability.
Additionally, workers are exposed to combinations of various potential hazards - chemical, physical, biological, ergonomic or psychological ultimately resulting in occupational diseases. Several observations indicate that a dermal exposure to hazardous agents like dusts, fumes, mists, aerosols, fibres, toxic gases, catastrophic chemicals can result in a variety of occupational diseases and disorders. It might also include Occupational Skin Diseases (OSDs) and systemic toxicity often following different mechanisms.
In rapidly developing countries like Bangladesh, industrialisation brings a radical alteration with it in human lives. If industries are not appropriately designed and safety measures are not adequately adopted, adverse health consequences can ensue. Even the traditional professions like agriculture, fishing or forestry create substantial risks due to occupational and geographical setting and excessive use of chemical fertilisers.
Moreover, recent studies disclosed that poisoning with metals in the industries usually takes chronic form and results from the absorption of small amounts of them stays over long periods of time. Acute poisoning may also occur from the accidental intake of large doses of toxic compounds like arsenicals. However, metals and their compounds with most physical hazards may also gain access into the body by inhalation, ingestion and in a few cases through the skin.
Besides, homogenous organic solvents or chemicals produce similar hazards since other substances can dissolve without changing their chemical composition. These chemicals are used in the extraction of oils and fats in food industry, chemical industry, paints, varnishes, enamel, degreasing process, dry cleaning, printing and dying in textile and rayon industries while contributing to the occupational hazards. Such exposures may cause dizziness, peripheral neuritis, decreased vision, insomnia, headache, fatigue, unconsciousness and even death. Such poisoning works faster when the hazardous agent is absorbed through the respiratory system instead of other routes - becoming extremely disastrous for the workers long after the time of exposure to such agents. Such compounds have a risk to be absorbed mainly through the lungs via the gastrointestinal tract if taken by mouth or via the intact skin causing adverse effects.
ADVERSE EFFECTS OF WORKPLACE TOXICITY:
n Gastrointestinal system: Exposure to different chemicals through foods or inhalation may cause dyspepsia, anorexia, nausea and maybe secondary effect to the liver affection. Toxins and microorganisms breaching the single layer of epithelial cells have unimpeded access to the systemic circulation and hence cause such symptoms.
n Respiratory tract: Effect of hazardous chemicals and other toxins may show upper respiratory irritation in some cases. In chemical plants, workers who are producing pesticides are frequently experiencing chronic bronchitis and disturbed pulmonary ventilation.
n Urinary system: A considerable amount of epidemiological data supports the casual relationship of occupational exposures with bladder cancer but the precise contributions of workplace exposures to kidney failure and kidney cancer are difficult to estimate. At present, up to 10 per cent of end-stage renal disease could be attributed to workplace exposures. Thus, toxic affection to kidney may have high chances to cause nephritis or renal failure.
n Skin: The growth of industry, agriculture, mining and manufacturing has been paralleled by the development of occupational diseases of the skin. The earliest reported harmful effects were ulcerations of the skin from metal salts in mining. Therefore, exposure to toxic components to skin may show contact dermatitis or acne to skin cancer depending on the exposure intensity.
For some workers, sleep problems may be a relevant risk factor due to sleep deprivation caused from overwork and stress. Insufficient sleep may not as such be a big problem but that does not mean fatigue and inattention of the workers due to sleep deprivation did not play a role in occupational disasters. Truck or bus drivers use to work more than 24 hours - often suffer from various diseases and cause fatal accidents killing or injuring both passengers and pedestrians.
However, such injury pattern was seen due to the ignorance of workers for not using precautionary measures such as gloves, helmets and eye-shields during their working hours. The owners are also ignorant in informal sectors where in the owners also co-workers along with employees and fatal victim of the work environments. The entrepreneurs in formal sectors have a little to think over safety since cost of products is a major issue to the local market even in the western markets. The major criteria of Bangladesh products are low-cost and the cost savings causes low wages and degrading working conditions.
Moreover, most of the occupational deaths and injuries are entirely preventable and could also be avoided if organisations provide proper environment with all kinds of safety facilities and employers and workers took simple initiatives to reduce workplace hazards or risks. The government regulators are often found to be reluctant to address the issues and hence workers become victims of such hazards. After Rana Plaza tragedy and Tazreen Fashions fire incident, overseas buyers and the United Nations raised the issue to Bangladesh. United States withdrew Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) facilities to Bangladesh exports, although there was no GSP for Bangladeshi ready-made garments (RMG). Under the pressure, Bangladesh's government, business leaders and worker's organisations signed 'National Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety and Structural Integrity in the garment Sector of Bangladesh' (NTPA) in July 2013. The ILO, along with the European Union and the United States, supported development of another worker safety and rights agreement but the United States proposed to withdraw after certain measures for worker safety were taken.
Bangladesh government is promise bound to reform the labour law and increase capacity of regulating authority to ensure safety of garments industries and to monitor the garment industries for safety of workers through a task force.
Western buyers and the civil society are extremely concerned about the RMG sector. They hardly pay any attention to other sectors like agriculture and services. But the government should give due attention to all the sectors of employment, both formal and informal, and ensure safe workplace for all.
The writer is a legal economist.