On September 11 this year, the country witnessed its worst industrial tragedy when nearly 260 workers died in a Karachi factory blaze. This tragedy not only exposed the inefficiency and negligence of the concerned government departments but most importantly it highlighted the appalling state of our industries’ occupational safety and health (OSH) practices. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) considers health and safety at the workplace as a fundamental human right and the government of Pakistan being a signatory to various ILO Labour Conventions is committed to ensure OSH in all its industrial units. Here, the Herald examines the existing law, as well as the roles and responsibilities of various government departments specifically connected to the fire safety component of OSH.
The Factories Act 1934
A single, independent, comprehensive legislation on OSH is lacking and various aspects of the subject are covered in different laws. The Factories Act 1934 is the foremost law that contains a part titled Chapter 3, on OSH issues and factory inspections. Provision number 25 of this chapter explicitly details precautions that are needed to be taken, in case a factory catches fire; according to this “every factory should be provided with means of escape, the door affording exit from any room shall not be locked or fastened while work is being carried out in the room, every window, door or other means of escape in case of fire shall be distinctively marked, audible means of giving fire warning shall be installed, maintenance of free passageways giving all workers access to each means of escape in case of fire and to ensure that all the workers are familiar with the means of escape and have been adequately trained in routine.”
Industries and Commerce Department
Every industrial unit from its planning phase to its inception, and throughout its working life, is supposed to be thoroughly inspected by four main government departments to ensure the implementation and compliance of the OSH regulations. The Industries and Commerce Department is assigned to conduct surveys of industries, registration of firms and societies, collect labour data and carry out boiler inspections and registrations.
|A FIA team is seen examining the garment factory where more than 290 employees were killed in a fire. Photo courtesy Dawn Archives.|
Sindh Industrial Trading Estates Limited (Site)
An organ of the Industries and Commerce Department, Site was established in 1947 under the Companies Act, 1913 now known as the Companies Ordinance, 1984 along the pattern of Trading Estates in the United Kingdom to promote industrialisation and to create attractive conditions for industrialists. In Karachi, any factory located in an industrial area, falls under the jurisdiction of Site, which is responsible for approving construction plans of industries — without its approval no industrial building can be built in the area. Site also has the authority to approve the map of an industrial building but only if it does not violate any by-laws of Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA), as the industrial unit has to follow KBCA rules and its by-laws.
KBCA’s Karachi Building and Town Planning Regulation 2002 has two chapters about by-laws on fire resistance and fire precautions (Chapter 13) and fire resistance structure requirements (Chapter 14). According to Chapter 13 “it is compulsory for each industrial building to have a set of (sic) pipes system with reserved water tank(s), automatic sprinkler system equipped with fire department’s approved inlet connection, at least one manual fire extinguisher in each vocational room, floor, corridors and stairway landings; internal alarm systems and signal stations to be located in an accessible location.” Chapter 14 deals with fire-resistant structure requirements; use of non-combustible material; availability of direct access for firefighting by unobstructed windows etc. If any industrial building fails to comply with these requirements, the KBCA and Site can take action against such buildings.
The labour department of a provincial government has to ensure the protection of the labourers and make sure requisite safety measures are in place in every factory or industrial set-up. The primary responsibilities of the department include the “promotion of industrialisation and industrial peace by implementing labour laws, managing labour courts, (sic) provide social security cover and improve the welfare condition of the industrial and mine labourers.” It is also the responsibility of the department to gather concrete data on all industrial units, get them registered and regularly inspect the industrial units for implementation of labour laws to protect the safety of employees and proceed against those who violate the laws.
Civil Defence department
The Civil Defence department, a branch of the home department, is governed by the Civil Defence Act 1952. It states that the department must take remedial measures against natural and man-made disasters in peace times and reduce the number of casualties as much as possible, whilst ensuring uninterrupted production in mills and factories. The department is further responsible for the fire-safety training of workers, in ensuring installation of fire-safety equipment in all industrial buildings, in providing technical assistance to the management of industrial establishments in the implementation of civil defence rules and measures and most of all, it is empowered to prosecute defaulting managements.