Is a safe work-environment a privilege only the rich deserve?

Do the poor people of our country not deserve a safe working environment?

Salah Ud Din Sadi June 10, 2012
Recently, I attended an International Conference on Occupational Safety and Health Training  in Islamabad. During this two-day workshop, I was baffled by the advancements made in terms of protecting the valuable lives of skilled labour. 

I heard talk about the use of Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) for workers' identification and safety; the use of iPads for addressing construction workers during their toolbox meetings (a worker meeting held at start of a day); Building Information Modelling (BIM) technology for worker safety and, in short, a stream of new, innovative ideas.

I must say, I was very impressed by how big companies valued their employees and were spending generous amounts of money in order to ensure their safety. Obviously, big lawsuits by injured workers in the past must have hurt their pockets, and so precautionary methods are the new way to go.

Very impressive.

However, after I the workshop, I couldn't help but feel hollow and disturbed.

My mind kept wondering to the poor construction workers - to those injured and dead due to a cylinder explosion in the Koragngi Industrial Area just a few days ago. Do they not deserve a safe working environment?

Most workers in Pakistan are not highly skilled and trained construction workers. The actual work force of Pakistan are the agricultural workers who make up 70% of the rural population in Pakistan.

It is these labourers who endanger their lives everyday during the construction of plazas, houses, farming and harvesting in return for meagre wages. They have no social security, employee safety or protection systems on dangerous scaffolds and fields. There are those who are exposed to snake bites and then those who fall victim to chronic lung diseases due to the mould and dust they are constantly exposed to.

Alongside, are the doctors and paramedical staff who risk their lives by exposing themselves to possible hepatitis B, hepatitis C and AIDS due to the undeniable shortage of  personal protective equipments. And let us not forget the welders who work in our mohallas (neighbourhood) without the basic safety knowledge for protecting their eyes and body.

There are very few privileged workers, with a degree in hand, who are employed in reputed construction projects, for  instance, Centaurus in Islamabad who have iPads and toolbox meetings using LCDs.

Are they any more deserving than the rest of us?

What we should be working towards are desi (local) solutions for these very desi (local) people.

Our bangle makers, carpet weavers and surgical instrument manufacturers in Sialkot need more attention as compared to the a few privileged class of workers.

Having said as much, I understand that it is difficult for people in Pakistan to develop a culture that emphasises safety, because we as Pakistanis have  a rampant "non safety" culture. Whenever I ask someone to wear a seat belt for instance, to use safety goggles, or to refrain from using firearms at wedding ceremonies, I am told, with a hint of mockery:
"Kuch nahin hota doctor sahab"

(Nothing will happen, Doctor.)

This "Kuch nahin hota" attitude is the main problem of our Pakistani culture and in many cases, caring about one's safety is taken as a direct blow to male chauvinism prevalent in our society. So, despite there being legislations, policies and provisions for personal safety, Pakistanis cannot practice occupational safety as they seem to be very comfortable with their not-so-safe practices.

In order to promote a culture of being safe, engineers, doctors, policy-makers and administrators should join hands. We must collaborate and liaison with social scientists and anthropologists to spread awareness amongst the people first - very much like the work which is being done today on consumer protection and justice issues. It is only through mass media and social interventions, that masses will start practising safety protocols.

There is a lot of room for advocacy in this regard; a draft pertaining to occupational safety and health is still pending in the Parliament for the last five years.

Tycoons of the industry do not want themselves to be held vicariously accountable for their employees' deaths or injuries. This will require them to dig deep in their pockets and compensate the families of the victims.

Why should we allow them to take the easy way out?

Is their life more valuable than that of a poor worker?

Salah Ud Din Sadi A doctor by profession who holds a Masters degree in Public Health and is now pursuing a PhD in Community Medicine at NUST. He has worked at various public health and development projects.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.