Each year, according to estimates of the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation, the government organisation that monitors the industry, an average of 25 workers die in accidents ‒ the majority of them in the fireworks powerhouse of Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu, where 90% of India's crackers are manufactured.
Approximately 80,000 workers are employed in 750 fireworks factories in the town, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Engineering and Management in 2013. Explosions caused by faulty handling of dangerous raw materials are by far the most common hazard, the study showed.
Factories frequently flout safety norms, NGOs working in the area say, endangering hundreds of lives. Further, the industry is notorious for employing inexperienced child workers, increasing the risk of accidents.
Despite this, experts say that there are four main safeguards factory owners could adopt to reduce the danger as they prepare for the country’s most important festival.
1. Automation of dangerous processes
A significant part of the firecracker manufacturing process can be automated. Machines are available to to mix chemicals, so the risk caused due to human error can be minimised. “The chemicals are mixed and sieved many times to get the final raw material for the fireworks," Ahamed Ibrahim of Galaxy Sivtek, a company that manufactures chemical mixing machines, said at a national conference of firework-equipment manufacturers in November. "Chemical mixing is hazardous and can cause health risk."
Often, accidents have been caused because of excessive work pressure. “Even manual processing will be safe if the workers are not pressurised and stressed for more production," said P Pandi, district president of Fireworks Workers Association at the same conference. The solution, obviously, is to set realistic production targets for workers.
2. Keep manufacturing within factories
It has become increasingly common for factory owners to subcontract work to people in their homes. This has increased the number children working in the hazardous industry. “Some may even say it’s good, because it generates income for the people,” said P. Raja Gopal, president of Nether’s Economic and Educational Development Society, a non-governmental organisation. "But it creates a process that eventually turns children into full-time labourers."
It also increases the likelihood of accidents, as chemicals are accidentally mishandled in the home by people not connected to the manufacturing process.
3. Training before hiring
If does happen at all, training in the firecrackers manufacture industry happens on the job: untrained hands are given hazardous chemicals to be mixed and bound into explosive crackers. The lack of training increases the likelihood of accidents.
Training is rare because of the quick turnaround of labour. Workers are responsive to even small increases in pay and skip from one employer to the next. In these circumstances, factories can't see the need to sink resources into training workers who are likely to quit rather soon.
4. End overcrowding
In normal circumstances, Sivakasi factories cram up to four people in small cubicles. In the weeks leading up to Diwali, that number could double. The temperatures are much higher than room temperature and make heat-reactive chemicals prone to explosion. In addition, prolonged exposure to chemicals in these enclosed conditions could cause lead poisoning, ulcers and damage to the central nervous system, according to the study published in the International Journal of Environmental Engineering.
Better work conditions would greatly reduce deaths in Sivakasi, experts said.
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