Gujarat agate workers use potentially low preventive practice to ‘evade’ deadly silicosis

Thursday, July 04, 2019

By Rajiv Shah
A decade ago the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) may have come up with a Global Programme for the Elimination of Silicosis by 2030. However, a new research paper co-authored by Canada-based scholars in association with senior Gujarat activist Jagdish Patel of the People’s Training and Research Centre (PTRC), Vadodara, suggests that the goal may not be easy to achieve, given the refusal of agate workers to believe in the efficacy of preventing the deadly disease.
Based on a survey of 1,120 respondents (agate workers 743, family members 277, and neighbours 100) in Khambhat, Central Gujarat, one of India’s top hubs for drilling, cutting and polishing agate – a home-based industry which employs up to 50,000 workers are employed across the country – the semi‐precious stone is used to make jewellery and other decorative items, which are exported to the US, Hong Kong, Thailand, and European countries.
Titled “Reducing agate dust exposure in Khambhat, India: Protective practices, barriers, and opportunities”, and published in the “Journal of Occupational Health”, the study says, while 44%, 35%, and 8% of agate workers, their family members, and neighbours, respectively, use some form of prevention practices, because the knowledge and risk perceptions are “generally high” among them, only 33.8% did not believe in the efficacy of measures they adopt.

The study notes, “The majority did not believe or were unsure if agate dust inhalation could be prevented”, adding, not without reason, majority of individuals (61.4%) did not use any effective “prevention practices.” The most commonly used preventive practices, says the study, are “a dust mask, cloth, or scarf (roughly 60% of all individuals); wet handling (roughly 30% of all individuals); and enclosing or moving the process away from family members.”
Calling the use of these prevention practices having “potentially low efficacy”, the study says, “The majority of all individuals (69.6%) knew that very fine dust was the type most dangerous to health” and that “the most commonly known health consequence of inhalation was difficulty in breathing or coughing.” It adds, “About 70% of individuals reported that they breathed enough dust to be harmful to their health, indicating generally high perception of risk.”
Researchers from Canada who worked in association the PTRC activist for the study are from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Canada (Lindsey Falk, Paul Bozek, Lissa Ceolin, Mercedes Sobers, Donald C Cole), the Workplace Health Without Borders, Mississauga, Canada (Marianne Levitsky), and the Environmental Consulting Occupational Health, Mississauga (Om Malik).
The study states, though “majority of individuals surveyed (87.8%) knew that agate dust was harmful to health”, and they had learned about this from friends or family members (45.7%), health‐care workers (26.9%), or the PTRC (26.6%)”, yet, less than 3% reported that their source of knowledge are employers. A home-based industry, over 40% of workers work for an agate industry entrepreneur.

Bemoaning that “ventilation methods were only identified by approximately 5% of individuals”, the study says, approximately 20.3% of workers reported prevention was too expensive, with only 23% of workers were willing to invest in an exhaust system for dust control. It adds, “Among them, 72.6% reported that they could invest Rs 5,000 or less”, though “most workers reported being able to invest only after 6 months to a year”, as “half of all workers reported owing debt.”
Further, says that study, “Only 30% of workers reported being willing to invest in new technologies. Among these individuals, approximately half were only willing to invest Rs 2,000. Interestingly having debt was not associated with the willingness to invest, suggesting that factors beyond cost could limit prevention practices currently or in the future.”