Citation: (2014) 3 SCC 547
Date of Judgement: 31/01/2014
The petitioner was a non-profit organization committed towards the health and safety of workers and represented about 130 Coal Fired Thermal Power Plants (CFTPP). The predominant concern was the lack of a system for occupational safety or safeguards from health hazards in such industries.
They invoked the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court through Article 32, seeking a direction of mandamus to frame guidelines for occupational safety and health regulations. They also sought the establishment of a Committee to monitor the working of thermal power plants, and maintain a check on the health and well-being of its workers while providing compensation.
Arguments advanced and adopted measures:
The petitioner submitted that there was various labour-related legislation in place such as the Factories Act, Employees’ State Insurance Act, Workmen’s Compensation Act etc. but their application with regard to workers’ safety was inconspicuous. A Report had been produced in 2007 that highlighted half of the workers in such industries to be suffering from lung function abnormalities, pneumoconiosis, asthma, human error and skin diseases to name a few.
Based on this report, the Apex Court had earlier passed an interim order on 30/01/2008 along with certain suggestions. The order included suggestions such as periodic medical checkups, free medical treatment, compensation for disease, ailment or accident etc. It additionally suggested the adoption of safe methods to dispose of hazardous wastes while calling upon the formation of a Committee of experts. The Committee was to comprise of individuals from the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, representatives from Trade Unions and Non-Governmental Organisations. Most of the suggestions relied on the recommendations of guidelines by the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH).
However, the respondents submitted that 7 out of 9 suggestions had already been satisfied by them as they had been broadly covered under various legislations. Moreover, the suggestions on safe methods for disposal and the establishment of a committee (hereinafter referred to as the 8th and 9th suggestion) would have to be examined by the Central Government to decide on its practicability.
In 2011, a Committee established by the NIOH submitted the Environment, Health and Safety Issues in Coal Fired Thermal Power Plants in order to effectuate the suggestions. The petitioners contended that the respondents as well as the NIOH had misunderstood the scope of the 8th and 9th suggestion. It was contended that not enough weightage was being accorded to the issue of workers’ health and that the NIOH Committee had overlooked the aspects of timely medical check-ups and provision for compensation.
However, the respondents rebutted by stating that the Committee’s report was comprehensive and there were various laws already in place to protect these workers.
The right to health and medical care of workmen has been viewed as a fundamental right since the decision of the Apex Court in Consumer Education & Research Centre and others v. Union of India & Ors., (1995) 3 SCC 42. The 3 Judge bench in that matter decided the right to come under Article 21 of the Constitution when read with Articles 39(e), 41, 43 & 48-A. The 1995 decision held that the compulsion of the workman to work in such a hazardous industry ought not to be misused to forsake one’s health and vigour.
It was held that an individual’s right to have and work in a clean environment that would lead to a healthy mind and body flowed from the wide ambit of Article 21. The Court recognized that workers worked in such hazardous and unhygienic conditions out of economic compulsion. The Division Bench stated that the right to live with dignity under Article 21 derived its life’s breath from Articles 39(e), 39(f), 41 & 42 (Directive Principles of State Policy).
Article 39(e) provides that a state shall strive to secure the health and strength of its workers while ensuring they did not perform unsuitable tasks out of economic compulsion. Article 41 deals with the securing of right to work and public assistance based on its economic capacity whereas Article 42 provides for just and humane conditions for workers. These Articles conferred individuals with the minimum requirements to live with dignity.
The Division Bench took into account that India was one of the largest coal-producing countries in the world with production meeting 54.3% of the nation’s energy requirement. Workers in industries such as CFTPPs were exposed to thermal discharges, dust, air and coal emissions. Such particles were plagued with the presence of coal dust besides silica, a carcinogenic substance. The State’s obligation to provide these minimum conditions would be paramount and when the industry itself was dangerous, that duty would become double-fold.
The respondents had already submitted that the prior suggestions had been incorporated through various laws. Thus, the issue before the Court was reduced to the implementation of the 8th and 9th suggestion. The Hon’ble judges then noted the relevant provisions of the NIOH Report, 2011 which was claimed to have included all necessary measures as sought by the petitioners.
The Report contained that materials such as asbestos and glass wool were hazardous to human health and advocated the use of PPE while handling the same. Industries were to have facilities for a robust occupational health safety system with trained manpower and infrastructure. Evaluation of workers’ occupational health status and periodic health check-ups would have to be carried out regularly. An annual workers’ awareness programme for a minimum of 8 hours per year was set out as a mandate.
NIOH had also considered the aspect of yearly radiology tests but later confined it to urgent and necessary cases due to the ill-effects of regular exposure. Moreover, maintenance of health records and a pre-placement medical examination was made compulsory. Thus, an occupier of a CFTPP would be responsible to ensure stringent compliance with the provisions of the Factories Act especially concerning health and safety.
The report also took into account the various forms of health hazards faced by workers due to the nature of work. The learned judges were satisfied with the understanding by NIOH but were concerned with the practical application and the extent to which it would be implemented. Many workers in CFTPPs suffer from diseases such as pneumoconiosis and chronic bronchitis.
The Division bench penned that CFTPPs were spread all over the country and it would not be practicable for the Supreme Court to examine whether the standards were being complied with at each such industry. The Court thus deemed it appropriate to assign these issues to High Courts in whose jurisdictions the plants were functioning, to examine them in-depth with the aid and assistance of the respective State Governments and CFTPPs. It would be the role of respective High Courts to examine whether there were effective health delivery mechanisms and periodic evaluation of workers’ health.
The Court opined that the said report was not comprehensive as contended by the respondents and the issues with the same would have to be delved into by High Courts. In conclusion, The Division Bench ordered for a copy of the judgement to be forwarded to the Chief Justices of 18 High Courts to initiate suo moto proceedings in larger interests of workers.
The way ahead:
The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 received Presidential assent on 28/09/2020 that would replace 13 Central legislations including the Factories Act of 1948 and the Mines Act of 1952. Entry 4 of the First Schedule has included Coal and coal-related industries to be a class of hazardous industries. Section 6 imposes a responsibility on employers to comply with health and safety standards set out under Section 18 of the Code while assuring the safety and health of workers. Nonetheless, the competency of the Code to reform the present health and safety systems would boil down to its extent of implementation.