ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court has been requested to order the federal and provincial governments to constitute a commission or a taskforce which would supervise efforts to arrest the prevalence of silicosis — an occupational disease which causes the lungs to atrophy and ultimately leads to death.

The Supreme Court is already seized with a human rights case initiated by activist lawyer Usama Khawar in 2014, after 18 stone-crushing labourers in Gujranwala died of the incurable disease.

Now in a fresh application moved through his counsel Raheel Kamran Sheikh, Mr Khawar has urged the court to intervene and order the federal and provincial governments to set up a body, under the chairmanship of the principal secretary to the prime minister, at the federal level, and the chief secretaries of all provinces, to adopt a plan to prevent, control and eliminate the deadly disease. The commission should outline responsibilities of various government agencies and departments, as well as set goals in addition to an auditing system to manage and monitor implementation, the petition suggests.

The deadly disease is contracted through inhalation of silica dust

The application explained that silicosis is a form of pneumococcus — a debilitating, incurable and deadly lung disease caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust found in stones, rocks, sand and clay. Silicosis, especially in its acute form, is characterised by shortness of breath, fever, and cyanosis or bluish skin.

Labourers working in industries relating to stone-crushing and marble grinding factories, stone quarries, construction, glass factories, quartz crushing factories, stone mines and other crystalline silica producing plants are in particular at risk of contracting the disease.

Though provincial governments had assured the court during previous proceedings that health departments were monitoring provincial hospitals to prevent the emergence of silicosis, the petitioner stressed the need for coordinated app­roach to address the issue. The responsible enforcement agencies, the petitioner explained, lacked manpower, resources and the infrastructure to enforce the legislative requirements.

The petitioner lamented that regulations were outdated and failed to account for a majority of workplaces and communities with significant exposure to silica dust. There is little coordination among the government, industry and voluntary agencies, he added.

The petitioner requested the court to direct the government to outline the resources needed to enforce laws and regulations, increase enforcement fines and penalties by the applicable regulatory bodies, to enhance the capacity of collecting and analysing air samples, and initiating training programmes on these procedures.

Safety measures urged

In his fresh application, Khawar suggested the setting up of a committee to present recommendations to various ministries in order to influence good work practices and adoption of simple control technologies to reduce silica dust emissions, such as the installation of pollution control devices, as well the provision of personal protection equipment (PPE), including dust and gas masks, working gloves, protective dress, shoes and helmets.

He stressed the need for ensuring resources to increase the number of awareness and training programmes for workers and employers. He also called for initiating projects to educate employers on dust suppression techniques. He added that diagnostic procedures should be reviewed by an independent medical research committee and the government should provide resources to conduct training programmes for physicians and radiologists on diagnostic techniques for the silica-related disease.

The workers compensation system must be reformed to provide universal coverage for silicosis, the petitioner said, adding that industries with high potential silica exposures to the surrounding population should be targeted for greater intervention whereas the reporting system for silica-related diseases should be improved.

The petitioner also requested the court to order the provision of district-wise breakdown of the number of stone- and marble-crushing factories operating in each province and the number of workers employed there instead of the consolidated information provided by labour departments. They should also provide information regarding the number of labour inspectors and certified surgeons operating in each district, in addition to clarifying whether local bodies were also licensing and regulating the trade of stone crushing and grinding, the petition added.

The departments concerned should also provide information to the apex court on whether the occupational safety and health bill, developed with the consensus of all stakeholders, would be brought before the respective provincial assemblies for consideration and enactment, said Mr Khawar in his petition.

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2017