Parameshwari is a desludging operator in Trichurapalli for the past decade. She has a team of operators whose safety is her priority. She has been very firm that her team of operators will not enter inside the septic tank to clean the sludge and denies any such requests that come her way. She retaliates that it is against the law for her team to clean the tank manually. Most of the time Parameshwari accompanies her team to the location since she is concerned they might end up entering the tank, or come in contact with life threatening poisonous gases. She also strongly believes in having proper equipment for her team while they clean, transport and treat sludge.
Out of five million sanitation workers employed in the sector, almost two million work in high risk conditions. Many of these jobs in the sanitation sector such as emptying toilet pits and septic tanks, cleaning community toilets, operating treatment plants etc. expose them to hazardous health risks, making it essential to adopt an inclusive and technical approach to ensure their safety. The process of Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) at many stages requires protective equipment and innovative techniques to ensure sanitation workers are not at risk. Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) is an inclusive and multi-facet process to reduce the health risks sanitation workers are exposed to at work by providing them with especially designed PPE kits, adopting techniques such as scheduled desludging and Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant (FSTP) and further training them to become professionals in using these. In order to achieve OHS, it is essential to have set rules for sanitation services, an indicator-based assessment cum rating system in Swachh Survekshan, training manuals for desludging operators, capacity building of sanitation workers and their operators basis the OHS guidelines and research on design and material for PPE, along with multiple other aspects at different levels.
The issues of safety at work can be solved only with an all-inclusive plan that caters to the needs of sanitation workers, and maintains a safe environment at work. OHS is a slow process that spans across levels, from the community to stakeholders, to foster sustainable impact. Mainstreaming OHS in Faecal Sludge and Septage Management shall not only ensure safe working conditions for sanitation workers, but also safeguard a dignified livelihood for them. Community level leaders like Parameshwari are leading by example and taking ownership to safeguard the health of their team members while they work in life threatening situations. Community level mobilization, capacity building, technology and innovation and stakeholder interventions can collectively empower sanitation workers who provide members of the society with their services at the frontline. It is thus extremely important to create safe working conditions for sanitation workers at all levels and ensure a dignified workspace for them.