WITH increasing fatalities in the stone-crushing and mining industry, the Supreme Court has been petitioned by a human rights activist to intervene to protect workers. It has been asked to constitute a task force with provincial representation ensuring workers are protected from silicosis — an incurable lung disease caused by long-term exposure to silica dust in the mining, sandblasting and rock-drilling industries. Drawing up preventive strategies for controlling and eliminating silicosis, including the monitoring of factories, is included as a potential task for this commission. This is not the first time that the court has been approached on the issue. In 2014, when the Public Lawyers Front filed a petition in the Lahore High Court after 18 cases of silicosis deaths were reported in Gujranwala, the apex court took up the matter. But the case continues and little action seems to have been taken to curb the menace. However well-meaning this latest intervention, progress will remain stalled without a functional labour inspection system, better regulation of industries and protective legislation.
The oldest known environmental lung disease, silicosis results in respiratory failure leading to eventual death. Unaware of the repercussions of crushing stones without protective gear, quarry workers must be informed through media campaigns of the dangers. For many trapped in poverty and debt who endure the adverse effects of silica dust in exchange for meagre sums of money, these risks might not even matter. This is why such inhumane exploitation by factory owners given their desire for profit is criminal and offenders should be severely punished. Most stone-crushing factories are not even registered or government regulated. More significantly, it is only when we see the political will to enact legislation and health and safety measures being implemented by the government through a national plan for safety within factories that the exploitation and death of workers will end.
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2017