Two months too late: No respite for burnt factory workers

Officials say their hands are tied against influential factory owners


Riazul Haq December 31, 2017

ISLAMABAD: On October 25, three labourers were burnt to death when a container with five tonnes of molten steel spilled out on them at a private steel mill located in the Industrial Estate Hattar. The fatal spillage also severely burnt several other labourers present in the vicinity.

What is perhaps more shocking is how work did not stop at the factory that day and the world kept turning like nothing was wrong. Despite the passage of nearly two months, there has been no justice for those who silently passed away inside the confines of the factory or those that were maimed by the molten steel.

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The inquiry reports from the district management — exclusively available with The Express Tribune—paint a gloomy picture of utter neglect by the state. However, the police and the district management can also share the blame with the state, since their attempts to follow up have been amateurish at best.

Initially, the factory owners tried to distract the media as well as the public by deeming the accident to be a gas cylinder explosion. The incident actually took place when a gear in the machinery carrying and transporting the molten steel container gave way, hurtling its content on the 22 labourers present below. The five that passed away in the accident hailed from Punjab while only two of the original 22 labourers were actually locals from Haripur.

A relative of one of the labourers informed The Express Tribune that the factory management wanted to keep the incident under wraps, to the point where even rescue workers were not allowed on the scene before 10 am.

“Despite the severity of the burns and the gravity of the incident, no ambulances were allowed to be used and the victims were sent off to the burn centre in Wah using local transport. Bearing in mind that most roads in this region are treacherous, mountainous paths, it greatly added to the suffering of the victims,” said Abdul Khaliq, whose cousin died in the incident, adding that local transport was only used to avert public attention.

The burns sustained by 11 of the workers were so severe that they remain under treatment at the Jinnah Hospital in Lahore even after two months.

The inquiry, conducted five days after the incident by the office of Haripur’s additional deputy commissioner, shows that the accident could have been easily avoided had the factory management paid closer attention to maintaining machinery.

The report states that the handles of the molten steel containing bucket had broken off in the past, which were then welded back on, with a blatant disregard for how it may not be mechanically fit to carry loads anymore.

In addition, the labourers were ill-equipped, lacking basic safety gear and even proper uniforms. In addition, the factory lacked an exit plan, safety protocols and basic fire fighting equipment.

Transporting the victims, using public transportation made it worse for them as well as they were exposed to many infections as well as the jostling of the vehicle itself. In addition, there is not a single burns unit in all of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which added to the precious seconds required to save lives.

To add to the labourers’ misery, they were all recruited through contractors and records related to the injured and dead labourers did not even exist with the factory administration. The labourers also lacked benefits such as social security and old age benefits to boot.

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“The labourers working in operations are untrained, unsupervised and lack expertise to handle mechanical operations and machines,” the report from the district management states, adding, “The technology used in casting of molten iron is outdated and is highly prone to such incidents.”

The provincial government, labour department and members of the Hattar industrial estate had informed the management of the shortcomings but little was done to improve standards.
Haripur’s Additional Commissioner Muhammad Naeem could not defend the negligence committed at different levels, saying the departments of provincial labour, environment and industry are also responsible for checks on factories.

“We tried to do the best we could, but there are many factors that need to be considered,” he said, quickly shrugging off the onus of burden.

Another senior official at the deputy commissioner’s office commented that the district management could not do much, owing to political influence.

“Unfortunately, our hands are tied against such bigwigs, even though there are blatant proofs of violations on the part of the industry management,” the official said, preferring not to be named.

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