Safety of sanitation workers first

1 Jan 2022

Curtain Hug

India has made significant development since Independence. It has the largest technically skilled workforces in the world. Its scientists, engineers and technicians are contributing to the development of other countries too. There have been significant achievements in science and technologies like missions to the Moon and Mars, medical sciences, food production, technical advancement; defense, and industry. There has been improvement in the development indicators like educational attainment, life expectancy and gross domestic product (GDP). However, progress has not been uniform in all sectors. Neither has it benefited all people. Some have better access to opportunities while others do not. The country still needs to ensure universal education, access to health care, basic amenities and employment. In this disparate development, the worst affected are the groups like sanitation and allied workers, who are marginalized due to their occupation and caste since most of them hail from certain Scheduled Castes.
Their access to health care, housing, education, basic infrastructure, provisions for work-related safety, safeguards against health hazards, information on various schemes oriented towards their welfare—including legal services and utilization of such schemes—all have largely remained confined within policy documents and recommendations, and the envisioned policy outcomes have failed to materialize.

A sanitation worker (or sanitary worker) is a person responsible for cleaning, maintaining, operating, or emptying the equipment or technology at any step of the sanitation chain. This is the definition used in the narrower sense within the WASH sector. More broadly speaking, sanitation workers may also be involved in cleaning streets, parks, public spaces, sewers, storm water drains, and public toilets. Another definition is: "The moment an individual’s waste is outsourced to another, it becomes sanitation work."
Those workers who maintain and empty on-site sanitation systems (e.g. pit latrines, septic tanks) contribute to functional fecal sludge management systems.

It is important to safeguard the dignity and health of sanitation workers. Without sanitation workers, the Sustainable Development Goal 6, Target 6.2 ("safely managed sanitation for all") cannot be achieved.
Some organizations use the term specifically for municipal solid waste collectors, whereas others exclude the workers involved in management of solid waste (rubbish, trash) sector from its definition.
Sanitation workers provide a critical public service, essential for our daily lives and the environment. Yet their working conditions expose them to the worst consequences of poor sanitation such as debilitating infections, injuries, social stigma and even death every day.

In some countries, human excreta is still collected from certain types of toilet (such as bucket toilets and pit latrines) without mechanical equipment and without personal protective equipment. These workers are "scooping out feces from ‘dry’ latrines and overflowing pits". They are usually working in the informal labor sector and are commonly referred to as "informal sanitation workers". They have weak legal protection results from working informally and do not follow occupational health and safety standards.
The challenges faced by sanitation workers can be categorized as follows: occupational safety and health, legal and institutional issues, financial insecurity, and social issues.

Sanitation workers are at an increased risk of becoming ill from waterborne diseases. To reduce this risk and protect against illness, such as diarrhea, safety measures should be put in place for workers and employers.

Occupational safety and health
Issues include:
Diseases related to contact with the excreta
injuries related to the physical effort of extracting and transporting the waste, including falls from height injuries related to cuts from non-fecal waste (e.g. glass or needles) disposed of down the toilet
the dangers of working in confined spaces, including lack of oxygen
One specific disease that concerns workers in sewers is Leptospirosis, spread through contact with rat urine.

Technology must match the needs of the workers. The most important exposure point is during the emptying of container based facilities were pathogen concentrations in the waste are the highest. Workers are more likely to wear protective gear if they are given a choice of suitable clothing.

Legal and institutional
In many developing countries, sanitation workers often have to work with weak legal protection, missing or weak standard operating procedures, weak law enforcement and few policies protecting their rights and health. The safety of sanitation workers is influenced by:
Design and construction of the toilet or other piece of sanitation infrastructure
Pressure by the customer
Pressure by the employer
Materials and equipment available to do the job

Social and financial challenges
In developing countries, low-grade, unskilled sanitation workers often face social stigma and discrimination. This is especially true when sanitation is linked to a caste-based structure and often allocated to castes perceived to be lower in the caste hierarchy, such as in India and Bangladesh. This stigma can result in intergenerational discrimination, where children of sanitation workers often struggle to escape the vicious cycle of limited opportunities and sanitation work.
There can be implicit or explicit discrimination, which hinders workers’ social inclusion, their opportunities to shift careers, and social mobility. Furthermore, alcoholism and drug addiction to evade the working conditions are common among some sanitation workers in developing countries.

Safety of sanitation workers
Sanitation workers are at an increased risk of becoming ill from waterborne diseases. To reduce this risk and protect against illness, such as diarrhea, measures have been proposed for occupational health: Basic hygiene practices for workers (hand washing etc.); sanitation workers should be provided with proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and be trained on how to use it (i.e. goggles, face mask, overalls, gloves, boots); vaccinations (e.g. tetanus, polio, typhoid fever, hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccinations.

Social stigma
Sanitation workers, particularly those in information employment who manually empty septic tanks and pit latrines, are often subjected to social stigma for their work.

- Dr. Meghul Chadha
Content Writer
Social Journal