The High Powered Committee which probed the styrene gas leak at the LG Polymers plant in Visakhapatnam on May 7 — which killed 12 people and injured hundreds of others — has suggested the setting up of factory safety boards at the Central and State levels to overhaul the factory safety regulatory system in the country. These would be on the lines of the Central and State Pollution Control Boards (CPCB and SPCB).

The suggestions gain significance as there have been as many as 30 reported industrial accidents in the country killing at least 75 people and maiming many more since the lifting of the lockdown.

IndustryAll, a global union representing 50 million workers in the energy, mining and manufacturing industries in 140 countries, in a letter written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi this week, urged him to immediately address systemic breakdowns in safety controls to avert potential catastrophes such as the 1984 Bhopal disaster.

Related Stories
Lessons from the Vizag industrial accident
The LG Polymers accident raises issues of culpability and industrial planning

“We have suggested significant changes in the factory safety regulatory system. We have suggested the setting up of factory safety boards in each State and at the Centre, which will bring under its ambit each and every factory safety law which is right now located in various departments and various ministries such as Factories Act, Indian Boiler Act, Explosives Act, the Petroleum Act, etc,” said Neerabh Prasad, Special Chief Secretary in Charge of Environment, in a telephonic interview with BusinessLine.

Arrest of officials

The nine-member expert committee, led by Prasad, came out with a detailed report, which it submitted in a record time of less than two months. Days after the YS Jagan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh accepting the report, 12 top executives of the firm were arrested for their negligence . The committee has five members appointed by the State and four nominated by the Centre.

Related Stories
Gas leak: LG Polymers CEO, 11 others held
The styrene vapour leak incident left 12 people dead and 585 sick on May 7 near Visakhapatnam.

“Currently each of these departments (such as Factories Department, Biolers Department, etc) are working in their silos. More importantly, most of them are very weak institutionally,” said Prasad. An example is how the State unit of Petroleum Explosives Safety Organisation, under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, is overseeing 40,000 installations in the State with four people.

“We need industrial growth. There is no compromise on that. But we also need two other things along with that – factory safety and environmental sustainability,” Prasad said.

Related Stories
‘Villagers need periodic health checks for a year’
Avoid using vegetables, milk, groundwater from villages for few days, cautions panel

He said the Central factory safety board should be the major standards setting body with different verticals for different kinds of factories. He added that a special investigation wing which would probe all industrial accidents that are classified as major accidents should be set up. Just like the National Disaster Response Force rushes in when a natural calamity occurs, by the mandate of law, it would carry out an investigation if the accident is above certain scale.

Smaller accidents can be investigated by the State factory board with help and guidance from the Central factory safety board, the report said. This in turn can serve a historical database which can be used for improving safety standards further, the official suggested.

This, Prasad said, can be done in two ways. For instance, one the labour codes being brought out deals with factory safety and occupational hazard and thus combines 13 safety-related legislations.

Need for implementation

Currently, there is a suggestion to make two advisory boards at the Central and State levels, but, according to the Committee, there is no need for advisory boards as there are enough rules and regulations. “What we need is implementation. This could be done by creating factory safety regulators in place of these boards,” he said.

The other way could be separately legislating such factory safety regulator through a new law.

As regards to environmental regulation, the report felt that the current laws are sufficient, but there are some parallel structures. While the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) give environmental clearances under the Environment Protection Act (EPA) and the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 2006, which is commonly called as environmental clearance, the Air Act and the Water Act are monitored by SPCBs.

While SPCBs have field, district and State level functionaries, the MoEF and SEIAA have only regional offices in a few major locations. As a result, there is no monitoring and regulatory mechanism to ensure whether the factory has complied with the conditions after the clearance is given.

“We have suggested that CPCB could be notified as the competent authority under the EPA and the EIA notification and SPCBs can become their monitoring and implementation arms,” Prasad said, adding that competent auditors can be appointed to carry out annual safety and environmental audits after which permission can be given for continuity of operation.