Safety measures for cleaning sewers to prevent deaths of sewer workers
As some of you may be aware, I have been deeply engaged with the cause of sanitation, especially toilets, for the last 50 years, and my impassioned engagement with sanitation and toilets still continues and this function is a living illustration of that. The world is changing faster than we are able to cope with, but the consequence of my longstanding work in this field has brought sanitation to the centre stage of national priorities that finds vivid manifestation in the ongoing Swachh Bharat Mission.
On this day now, we have come up with the idea to start nothing less than a sanitation revolution in this country. Whereas one revolution led by Mahatma Gandhi brought independence to India, this ongoing sanitation revolution under the banner of Swachh Bharat Mission, led by our beloved Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, will bring freedom from dirt and filth.
However, it is extremely sad that we often hear these days the news about so many sewer workers losing their lives while working inside the sewer. This is a matter of grave concern for all perceptive and conscientious Indians, particularly the political and business leadership. To rally round support for this cause and do something tangible to stop the loss of precious lives, Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, which has been in the forefront of leading a nationwide social and sanitation movement for the past 50 years, has decided this year to organise the World Toilet Day on the theme of “Safety Measures for Cleaning Sewers to Prevent Deaths of Sewer Workers”.
The preventable tragedy of Sewer Cleaners
In India, we have thousands of sewer cleaners (manual scavengers called safai karamcharis), who are engaged in handling the human waste manually, clearing chocked drains with minimum equipment and gathering human waste from railway platforms. Even today, generation after generation is compelled to do this work of manual scavenging. Nearly a century after Mahatma Gandhi called for the abolition of manual scavenging, the degrading practice continues. According to various sources, during the last three years, there have been over 1300 deaths of Safai Karamcharis while entering sewer lines.
It is high time this tragedy is averted. This problem can be fixed by:
Overcoming the expected and predictable hazards; Using the knowledge and specialization we have acquired over the years; Using the current techniques prescribed in the Manual Scavenging Act 2013, to overcome the risks, and getting trained on how to use current equipment, and; Transforming the perception of the occupation and bringing about pride and dignity in the job.
It is notable that the Chapter 2 of Manual Scavenging Act 2013 clearly specifies obligation of employer towards employees engaged in the cleaning of sewer or septic tank. It mentions that no person shall be allowed to clean a sewer manually, but person(s) can be employed for this task with the protective gear and safety devices in exceptional cases such as:
a) For the removal of concrete or Fibre Reinforced Plastic (FRP) or damaged manhole door where mechanical equipment cannot be put in to operation.
b) For interlinking the newly laid sewer main with the existing sewer main, in case of sewer of size of more than 300 mm diameter.
c) For removal of submersible pump sets fixed at the bottom of the suction walls.
d) For the reconstruction of the manhole or the rectification of the sewer main.
e) Any circumstance when it is absolutely necessary to have manual sewage cleaning, after the CEO of the local authority has permitted to do so after recording in writing the specific valid reasons for allowing such cleaning.
For the purpose of clauses (c) and (d) of the above mentioned sub-rule, before allowing entry of a person in the sewer, sewage shall be totally emptied.
It has been stipulated in the Act that any person engaged to clean sewer or septic tanks shall be provided protective gear and safety devices by his employer, but not limited to the following safety devices.
Following are the prescribed safety devices for entering in- to the manhole and avoid the hazards of gases:
Air Compressor Blower; Airline Breathing Apparatus; Airline Respiration with Manually Operated Air Blower; Air Purifier Gas Mask; Breathing Apparatus; Breathing Mask; Emergency Medical Oxygen Resuscitator Kit; Gas Monitor; Chlorine Mask
Similarly, there are prescribed safety devices for protection from skin diseases, cuts and wounds:
Barrier Cream; Face Mask Hand Gloves; Safety Goggles; Safety Helmet; Head Lamp; Normal Face Mask; Safety Body Clothing; Rain Coat; Fishing Wader Suit with Boots
For Safety from Slips, Trips, Road Accidents and Accidents inside drainage:
Nylon Rope Ladder; Reflecting Jackets; Nylon Safety Belt; Safety Harness; Caution Tape; Caution Cone; Caution Board; Lead Acetate test paper; Safety Tripod set; Searchlight; Safety torch
Other Safety Devices include First Aid Box, Portable Oxygen and Notebook.
It is stipulated that the local authority shall ensure that the following cleaning devices are used by persons engaged in cleaning sewer or septic tank including but not limited to the following: Jetting machine; Suction machine; Combine machine Jetting cum suction; Manual Hand operated grab bucket; Hydraulic operated trolley mounted grab bucket; Truck Mounted Motor and Winch operated Grab Bucket Machine
Following are the General Points mentioned in the Act regarding the safety and health of sewer workers involved in drain cleaning:
• All protective gears and safety devices under the rules (of the Manual Scavenging Act) shall be checked every six months and necessary repair or replacements shall be made by the employer who engages a person for cleaning a sewer or septic tank.
• The employer shall also ensure the following safety precautions before a person is engaged in the cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank:
a) There shall be a minimum of three employees present all the time, one of whom shall be supervisor.
b) The atmosphere within the confined space shall be tested for oxygen deficiency and toxic combustible gases including, but not to be limited to, poisonous gases like Hydrogen Sulphide, Carbon Monoxide, Methane and Gasoline vapours through detection test including the following:
I. Lowering a detector lamp in to the manhole.
II. Inserting wet lead acetate paper which changes colour in the presence of hazardous gases.
III. Detection of gases through gas detector masks.
c) Traffic and pedestrian barricades are provided all the times.
d) Regular annual medical checkup sewage workers which include the examination of respiratory organs, skin injuries, and other occupational diseases and injuries for their treatment to ensure that sewage workers afflicted with such diseases or injuries do not enter sewers for cleaning.
• Regular vaccination against respiratory and skin diseases and other occupational diseases to which these workers are prone due to exposure to harmful substances and gases in sewers.
• All employees who are present on the site during cleaning work are given training and adequately familiarized with the knowledge to operate all equipments involved in cleaning work, to avoid injuries, diseases associated with such work and to take necessary steps in case of emergency arising at the place of work and the training shall be conducted every two years and the employees shall be familiarized with every such method and technique to the above.
• The supervisor should keep the names, addresses and telephone numbers of the nearest hospitals or clinics.
•Cleaning of a sewer or septic tank will be done
(i) only in day light
(ii) for a duration not exceeding 90 minutes at a stretch. There shall be a mandatory interval of 30 minutes between two streches.
• Smoking, open flames are prohibited inside the manhole as well as in the immediate vicinity of open manholes.
• Ensure that written operating and rescue procedures are displayed at the entry side.
• The opened manhole shall be properly fenced or barricaded to prevent any person, especially children, from accidently falling into the sewer. Dummy cover with welded fabric or wire net may be used.
In the Act, there is mandatory Safety Checklist for entering manhole, individual and team, as mentioned above.
The Chapter 2 of the Manual Scavenging Act 2013 also mentions the following measures for personal hygiene:
• Avoid touching face, mouth, eyes, nose or open sores while handling human waste or sewage.
• After handling human waste or sewage, wash your hand with soap and water before eating or drinking.
• Before eating remove soiled work clothes and eat in designated areas away from human waste and sewage handling activity.
• Do not smoke or chew tobacco or gum while handling human waste or sewage.
• Keep open cuts, sores and wounds covered while handling human waste or sewage.
It is apparent thus that there are enough and adequate measures, both technical and practical, prescribed in the Manual Scavenging Act 2013 that can put an end to the tragedy of deaths of sewer workers, if those measures are effectively put into practice. Apparently, there is a huge gap between the desired things and measures mentioned in the Act and their application on the ground.
There is need to bridge this gap as far as possible on an urgent basis. And along with this, we have to transform the perception of Manual Scavenging and Sewage Working and bring about pride and dignity by using mechanisation, as mentioned in the Chapter 2 of the Manual Scavenging Act 2013.
Let us pledge to dedicate ourselves to the cause of safety, health and protection of our sewer workers, who render such an invaluable service to society. Let us endeavour to do all the doable things that can save the precious lives of our sewer workers. If we are serious about this, we can ensure the prevention of accidents and occupational diseases associated with sewage work as well as protection of environment in the best interest of our family, community and the nation.
© 2016 Sulabh Swachh Bharat. All Right Reserved