Dalsukh, a sanitation worker, went down a manhole on June 12. He did not come back up again.
Descending into the manhole to clean it was Dalsukh’s job. A sanitation worker in the Ahmedabad district of Gujarat, he was cleaning drains near the Riyaz Hotel in Jamalpur. According to DNA India, CCTV footage showed Dalsukh entering the manhole without wearing any protective equipment – not even a safety mask. He died of asphyxiation.
Dalsukh is one of many sanitation workers who die on the job every year – not only in Gujarat, but across India.
Workers entering manholes to clean them by hand is a process known as manual scavenging. This is actually illegal in India and has been since 2013. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act said the process should be entirely mechanised due to the dangers of the sewer environment in which manual scavengers work. However, loopholes in the law exist. Contractors regularly take advantage of those loopholes to clear India’s manholes and sewers rapidly in order to cut prices.
As the case of Dalsukh shows, this is often done at the expense of workers’ health – and lives.
Sewers provide a myriad of dangers for those who work within them. Toxic gases resulting from cleaning fluids and excrement may build up in areas of the sewer, rising to levels that pose severe risks to those breathing them. The septic environment poses severe risk of infection should the worker have any open cuts. This risk of infection is more considerable when taking into account the potential for open cuts occurring while within the sewer.
Despite this, cutting costs has led contractors to not equip workers with ventilators, gas concentration detectors, gloves, face masks and hard hats. Alongside this, workers often operate alone. Without a person on standby, this can mean that even minor issues can quickly escalate into a fatal incident.
“Sewers provide a myriad of dangers for those who work within them”
Of particular concern when a person is alone in the sewer is the “sewer gas” present. This gas is a complex combination of various organic and inorganic compounds, the levels of which can vary greatly.
The most abundant gas, hydrogen sulphide, is the result of the breakdown of human waste in the absence of oxygen. As such it is difficult to judge where this gas may be present without first testing oxygen levels within the sewer.
Hydrogen sulphide toxicity poses a particular danger to those operating in the sewer alone. A key effect the gas has on the human body is to a person’s mental state. Excessive inhalation of the gas can cause delirium, or even unconsciousness.
The gas has a “rotten egg” smell, a hallmark identifier that may go entirely unnoticed within the confines of an already strong smelling sewer. As a result, the gas may be all but undetectable to a sewer worker. This leaves them at risk of losing consciousness before realising the danger they are in.
Various other symptoms could also hinder attempts by the worker to exit the sewer. Nausea and convulsions may occur, causing disorientation. This effect is increased by the potential for skin and eye irritation.
Without suitable breathing equipment and protective gear the worker is left vulnerable to both gas and infectious material. Many of the workers entering the sewers will have minimal training – if any at all. As such, they may not know of proper protocol to respond to any hazards. This can result in an individual panicking, or unknowingly walking into dangerous areas.
Without adequate measurement tools, numerous other gases present in the sewer such as methane and carbon monoxide may also cause issues. In many areas, a combination of all three will be present. This results in the stratification of the gases based on density. Lighter gases such as methane will rise to the higher areas of the sewer.
“Without suitable breathing equipment and protective gear, the worker is left vulnerable”
Methane is less dense than breathable air. As such, it has the capacity to displace oxygen. For this reason it is deemed an asphyxiant, and is considered to be dangerous in enclosed spaces. It can result in areas where air is entirely unbreathable, potentially causing loss of consciousness and, eventually asphyxiation.
Manholes are also coming to the public’s attention as a potentially fatal health hazard for both workers and citizens. Recently, headlines were made when Dinesh Jatholiya, a 24-year-old labourer from Rajasthan, died after falling into a 15-feet deep manhole in Kurla in Mumbai. The manhole had been covered with a tin sheet but its presence was not signposted.
This danger is far more common during the monsoon season. Localised flooding often leads residents to open manhole covers in an attempt to limit the flooding. Teams of workers are often deployed to open and clean the manhole grates, as they often become packed with debris and plastic moved by the floodwaters.
“These workers face some of the most perilous environments a person may encounter”
The workers warn that — despite placing warning flags on the manhole covers — the presence of open manhole covers can be a severe danger. In floodwaters a person may not see the open drains and so risks falling in. In the example of the worker who died in Mumbai the fall was fifteen feet. Such a fall could either directly injure the person, or disorientate them enough that they remain trapped within the flooded sewer system, risking death by drowning.
Workers themselves are exposed to this danger. For instance, in Mumbai in January, Scroll.in reported the deaths of four migrant labourers. They were being lifted out of a manhole after finishing cleaning a sewage line. The cable snapped and the men fell nine metres down the manhole to their death. This, combined with the presence of noxious gases and scant regard (at best) for worker safety, clearly shows why manual scavenging is such a dangerous profession.
Legislation is already in place regarding the working of manholes and sewers. The issue India faces is the exploitation of loopholes in these laws in order to cut costs at the expense of worker safety in an already illegal line of work. Such loopholes must be addressed, particularly when considering that these workers face some of the most perilous environments a person may encounter.