Research by Aga Khan University, Germany’s GIZ set to boost Pakistan’s leading export industry: Ninety percent of workers had little awareness about the risks of cotton dust.
Karachi, October 3, 2016: Improving the health and safety of workers in the textile sector, Pakistan’s largest industry, can boost productivity, competitiveness and compliance, according to studies released by the Aga Khan University and GIZ, the German development agency, at a collaborative event on Monday.
The textile industry, with its significant contribution to the country’s exports (58 per cent), is supported by an estimated 10 million strong workforce who often face safety and health issues. Most commonly, textile mill employees are exposed to significant amounts of cotton dust leading to respiratory diseases such as byssinosis as well as complaints such as chest tightness, shortness of breath and persistent coughing.
The MultiTex research project, carried out by AKU’s Community Health Sciences Department, found that employees most at risk of chest ailments were the least aware of health hazards. The Return on Prevention study by GIZ found that textile industry stakeholders could be willing to invest in health and safety as they were aware of a return on investment.
AKU’s MultiTex project looked at the severity of health risks in textile mills and workers’ understanding of occupational health and safety (OHS) hazards around them. Interviewing 300 employees at seven mills in Karachi – with a workforce of approximately 9,000 people – almost all (90 per cent) were not educated and most had little awareness of the risks of cotton dust. Worse, employees who were more exposed to cotton dust, since they worked longer shifts and more days per week, than their counterparts were less aware of health hazards. Almost 80 percent of the workers were not using safety precautions (such as facemasks) that would help protect them against hazards at the workplace.
“These preliminary findings reinforce our earlier study. Our previous research on 372 workers in 15 textile mills in Karachi found that cotton-dust related diseases and ailments were common,” said AKU Assistant Professor Dr Asaad Nafees.
“About 1 in 10 textile workers developed byssinosis, 2 in 10 employees suffered from shortness of breath and 3 in every 10 labourers complained of tightness in the chest. These health risks reduce the quality of life for so many employees and result in absenteeism and lost productivity for the textile industry. With 10 million or more employees in this sector, this represents a significant cost in human capital and potential manufacturing output.”
The MultiTex study saw researchers use special indoor devices to measure air pollution in different parts of the mills. Workers also wore personal air monitors (which tracked whether dangerous levels of cotton dust were being inhaled) and were given lung function tests before and after shifts to assess the seriousness of the daily impact of pollution.
AKU researchers are currently conducting follow-up studies to understand the long-term health threats facing employees. For now they have suggested three possible approaches to improve the health and safety of workplaces:
- Personal protective equipment, face masks to reduce inhalation of harmful particles followed by OHS trainings for managers and workers to improve knowledge, attitude and practices.
- Organisational changes to minimise the number of workers in danger areas and to reduce the time spent by workers in high exposure settings.
- Structural changes involving the purchase of new machinery or improved workplace design and ventilation.
These recommendations complemented the research Return on Prevention study that involved structured interviews with employees in 58 companies to understand whether investments in occupational health and safety pay off for companies in the textile and garment industry.
The companies interviewed stated that occupational health and safety practices were “very important” especially in the areas of warehousing, production, personnel allocation and transport. They also stated that investments in health and safety typically paid-off, offering a return of 2.5.
Speaking at the event, Mr Olaf Petermann, from German Social Accident Insurance BG ETEM said that investments in occupational health and safety boost the competitiveness and compliance of Pakistani businesses. “The research findings shared today help build a case for textile industry stakeholders to improve health and safety since it will benefit both workers and the financial performance of companies.”
“The Sindh Labour department is fully committed to improve the occupational health and safety standards in the industry,” Sindh Labour Department’s Joint Director (Health and Safety) Ali Ashraf Naqvi added.
Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) Joint Director, Zulfiqar Shah, said: “This event has enabled an informed discussion among all stakeholders of the industry and we look forward to working with all representatives to ensure a healthy workforce and a strong industry.”
The event ended with a panel discussion featuring representatives from the Sindh Labour Department, a technical consultant from SGS Pakistan and officials from non-governmental organisations, HomeNet, PILER and business associations. They discussed the relevance of the findings for the industry’s future and the most feasible steps to take to achieve OHSE goals.