Highlighting the plight of India’s healthcare workers, who are not only fighting the pandemic but also facing occupational hazard due to increasing hospital fires, a Delhi-based national body representing technical workers in hospitals has written to the Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare.
The frequency of hospital fires has increased in recent times. Seven hospital fires have broken out in Bhandara, Mumbai, Nashik, Bharuch, and Delhi, resulting in the death of almost 80 patients and workers in recent months, Association of Healthcare Workers and Technicians (ACT) wrote in a letter dated May 29.
The healthcare technicians’ body, through their letter addressed to Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Union health minister, demanded an immediate fire audits of all hospitals in the country. The letter also pointed, in a separate press note, towards the failure of the recently passed labour code, pertaining to occupational health and safety of workers, in regulating the workplace safety norms in healthcare establishments.
According to media reports, as many as 93 people, most of them COVID-19 patients, have died in 24 incidents of fires across the country since last August. This is in addition to several other hospitals in metropolitan cities being flagged to be at “severe risk” post fire audits.
Correlation can be drawn between the increase in the frequency of hospital fires and the stressed healthcare facilities that are pushed to the brink to bear the rising patient load in the country.
As per reports, fire experts blame the increasing of beds, equipment and staff to admit more COVID-19 patients in hospitals without immediately expanding the electrical wiring system. Among other reasons are also the lack of cross-ventilation in ICUs and an increase in inflammable material in hospitals – sanitisers and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits.
“Our hospitals and care centres are overcrowded. Workers are exhausted, and with the utter lack of attention to safety, we are not only risking our lives due to the pandemic but also due to an unsafe working environment,” said Man Singh, a dialysis technician in Delhi.
But the pandemic-triggered challenges are not the only reasons behind the frequent hospital fires. According to Dharmendra Kumar, president of ACT, the prevailing situation has much to do with the lack of a legal framework to guarantee occupational health and safety of healthcare workers.
The Centre in September last year got three reform-oriented labour code bills passed in Parliament, one of which namely, Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code (OSHWCC), 2020, was aimed at regulating the working conditions and safety of workers. There are in total four Codes subsuming 29 existing central labour enactments.
Under the OSHWCC, occupational safety standards are to be framed for different sectors – factory, and mines, among others – by the central government on the advice of the National Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board. However, it is unclear if the Code extends to healthcare establishments or not.
Moreover, ACT in a press statement on Monday claimed that the Code was “deficient” for the workers in other sectors as well.
“While the new regulation promises safe working conditions, the union has been raising concerns since its [the Code’s] introduction that it fails to adequately address or regulate workplace safety,” it said.
Indra Narayan Jha, general secretary of ACT, told Newsclick on Tuesday that the overall situation in the healthcare sector has also worsened with the prevalence of a rather “informal structure” within most of the hospitals where a worker can not report his/her concerns without fear of employers’ retaliation.
Meanwhile, in a survey conducted last month among 100 of its members in Delhi, the ACT found that 20% of the technicians did not have access to PPE kits, while 50% of them reported feeling lack of support from their employers.
Formed in 2019, ACT, a union affiliated to UNI Global Union which represents skill, service, and care workers in 150 countries, claims to have 1,000 healthcare technicians – mostly for dialysis – along with nurses as its current member.