A debilitating lung disease caused by silica dust is taking a huge toll on the health of labourers working in the stone crushing industry in Bangladesh’s north and north-eastern regions.
There is no official figure for the total number of silicosis-related deaths in Bangladesh, however the Safety and Rights activist group told the Dhaka Tribune that over 65 labourers have died in three villages under Burimari, Srirampur and Patgram unions alone in recent years.
And according to officials of Patgram Upazila Health Complex, at least 16 former labourers of stone crushing factories in the Burimari area have died of the disease in the past five years.
There are also a few documented cases of labourers being given treatment for silicosis following an early diagnosis.
Azanur, 35, was a former worker of the Fatema Enterprise mill who used to make Tk80 per day as a day labourer. He quit the mill after a doctor diagnosed him with silicosis in 2010, and has been under treatment at the National Institute of Diseases of the Chest and Hospital (NIDCH) in Dhaka ever since.
Azanur has exhausted all of his savings and had to sell off his half acre of land to afford the costly treatment. He has contacted the mill owner for financial support several times, but the owner has yet to pay him any compensation.
Momin Ali is another stone mill worker who was diagnosed with silicosis in 2006 and who is also undergoing treatment at NIDCH.
He worked at the Victory Mosaic Company between 2003 and 2006 for a meagre wage of Tk70-80 per day.
Momin sought compensation from the owner of the factory, but was told the relationship between a labourer and an owner “is only between work and wage”.
How to the factories operate?
A stone crushing mill uses machinery to crush large stones into stone chips, which are then used as building or road construction materials.
Most of these factories in the north and north-eastern regions of Bangladesh are not owned by locals; rather, the owners run the factories from other parts of the country.
These mills usually import stones from neighbouring countries such as India and Bhutan. The stones are also locally mined from north-eastern rivers, such as Piyain River in Sylhet, Karatoya River in Panchagarh, and Dharala River in Lalmonirhat.
What is silicosis?
Silicosis is a type of lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust and is considered an occupational disease for stone crushers and miners.
“Silicosis is mainly caused by quartz dust, and only stones imported from Bhutan have high levels of quartz,” said Rokonuzzaman Rokon, the owner of Jhilik Poultry Feed in Burimari which uses limestone as an ingredient.
“But the importers here in Burimari have stopped importing stones from Bhutan so the workers should no longer be affected by silicosis.”
The disease causes inflammation and scarring in the form of nodular lesions in the upper lobes of the lungs.
Silicosis symptoms include shortness of breath, cough, fever and cyanosis. Reports show that silicosis was the cause of 46,000 deaths globally in 2013, dropping from 55,000 deaths in 1990.
The labourers working in the stone crushing mills are mostly from very poor families and do not have any alternative means to earn their livelihoods.
According to a rough estimate by the Patgram Upazila Health Complex, at least 400 labourers are currently suffering from the respiratory disease at different stages.
“The death toll of labourers working in the industry is steadily rising, as the factories do not take proper health and safety measures,” Upazila Health Officer Golam Mostafa told the Dhaka Tribune.
The district administration says around 500 small and large scale factories are operating in the Patgram area of Lalmonirhat district. These factories, employing around 11,000 labourers, mostly crush stone and limestone.
The administration claims to be aware of the situation and has already shut down several local factories.
“A special task force, comprising of different organisations such as the DIFE, law enforcement agencies, and environment departments should be formulated to shut down these factories that are sending workers to their early deaths,” Patgram Upazila Nirbahi Officer Nur Kutubul Alom said.
Action against silicosis
Several NGOs, such as Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILLS), have been providing workers with healthcare, legal support and alternative livelihoods on a limited scale for the last few years.
BILLS has provided support to more than 10 advanced stage silicosis patients by bringing them to Dhaka, and more than 400 patients through health camps in Burimari.
Programme Officer of BILLS Md Syaduzzaman Mithu told the Dhaka Tribune: “We are trying to create awareness among the labourers about the deadly threat of silicosis and its preventive measures.”
However, most factory owners are yet to implement necessary safety measures, such as the distribution of masks to labourers.
There are allegations that the workers themselves refuse to wear safety masks while working in the mills but some labourers denied the allegation, claiming that the factory owners do not care about safety measures and labour rights.
Violation of law
According to a 2012 report by the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), most stone crushing factories operating in the Burimari area are violating a number of health and safety regulations.
“Most of the factories are operating without registration (and) do not have health and safety measures for labourers,” the report said. “The labourers also have not been trained in safely handling stone dust.”
The report also said the factories were not paying any compensation to the sick and families of dead labourers, or reporting on on-site death and injuries to the government. They had also been running without any environmental clearance certificates.
Md Mahfuzur Rahman Bhuyan, an inspector of DIFE, told the Dhaka Tribune: “These stone crushing factories do not care about the environment or health of the workers; they only care about their profit.