The Maharashtra government has issued fresh guidelines to civic bodies and district collectorates for the manual cleaning of septic tanks and sewer lines, The Indian Express reported.

The guidelines come after the deaths of five sanitation workers and a sixth person in April after they entered sewers in Mumbai and its surrounding areas.

Manual scavenging – the practice of removing human excreta by hand from sewer lines or septic tanks – is banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. However, the practice remains prevalent in several parts of the country.

Under the law, contractors have to provide safety gear and cleaning equipment to sanitation workers.

The latest guidelines issued by Maharashtra’s Urban Development Department mandate that machines be used to clean such confined spaces. However, they allow for sanitation workers to be directed to clean them only if absolutely necessary, The Times of India reported.

Stakeholders must ensure that the depth of the confined space is measured before a worker enters it, the fresh guidelines say, according to The Indian Express. The space should also be checked to ensure the absence of toxic or flammable gases that are typically produced by the decomposition of organic matter.

The state government also said that mechanical ventilation should be provided to ensure adequate air supply for sanitation workers.

“Only certified workers, who have completed training, must be allowed to work in confined spaces like septic tanks and underground sewers, in unavoidable circumstances,” the guidelines said, The Indian Express reported.

The guidelines also noted that a sanitation worker should be immediately withdrawn from a confined space if they report any discomfort. Further, workers should be allowed to enter the septic tank or sewer only after receiving security clearance from the site manager.

The state government has also said that private organisations and persons must hire sanitation workers who are trained and registered with municipal bodies to clean septic tanks and sewers.

On April 24, a sanitation worker cleaning a sewer line in an under-construction building and a rescuer died after inhaling toxic gases in Mumbai’s Malad locality.

On April 9, four sanitation workers died in Virar near Mumbai after inhaling toxic gases. The four men had entered a private sewage treatment plant, allegedly without proper safety gear.