The global onslaught of COVID-19 has once again brought the issue of workplace hygiene into public limelight. India has hitherto fared poorly in matters of workplace health and safety, with industrial accidents and workplace-contracted infections being a common occurrence. Since social distancing is set to be the norm post the pandemic, current laws governing workplace health and safety are set to undergo major amendments to keep up with change.
The threat posed by COVID-19 to workers became apparent when several office buildings were sealed after certain employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Corporate offices housed in glass buildings with closed indoor air conditioning effectively became potent ‘virus chambers’. This became apparent as the contagious COVID-19 virus spread rapidly via elevator buttons, coffee machines, doorknobs and contaminated office cubicles.
Current Workplace Health and Hygiene Standards under the Factories Act, 1948:
The Factories Act of 1948 is currently the nodal legislation prescribing the legal requirement for workplace hygiene and disinfection. Section 11 of the Act requires proper cleanliness of factories. Section 11(1)(b) in particular requires the floor of every workroom to be cleaned at least once every week using disinfectants. Further, the walls, partitions and ceiling surfaces should be varnished, re-painted and even replaced at varying intervals ranging from six months to five years.
Section 13 of the Act pertains to ventilation and temperature. Section 13(1) stipulates that adequate ventilation by circulation of fresh air should be ensured in every workroom. The proper temperature should be maintained to ensure the workers’ comfort. Further State Governments have been empowered to prescribe standards of adequate ventilation
Another issue of extreme importance post-COVID-19 is of workplace overcrowding. Section 16 of the Factories Act prohibits overcrowding that may be injurious to worker’s health. It sets the minimum volume requirement of workspace per worker at 14.2 cubic meters. Given the threshold ceiling height of 4.2 meters, the minimum surface area per worker comes to 3.38 square meters or 36 square feet.
The threshold limit of 36 square feet per worker may turn out to be inadequate in the light of social distance requirements post the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore it is likely that these requirements may be strengthened under the Draft Occupational Safety, Health and Working Code of 2019 which is under consideration by the Central Government.
The Draft Occupational Safety, Health and Working Code of 2019
The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Code of 2019 (OSHWC) has been proposed by the Ministry of Labour and Employment as a replacement for the Factories Act of 1948. Being a draft bill, it was introduced in Lok Sabha where it is currently pending consideration. It has been proposed as a single-window comprehensive statute for all matters relating to safety at workplaces and factories, representing a marked step towards simplifications of labour norms in India.
Legal Liability for Workplace Contracted Infections in India:
The issue of legal liability for workplace-contracted infection came up before the Delhi State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (Delhi SCRDC) in the case of Prakash Mohan Tripathi vs. Batra Hospital. The issue which came up for consideration was whether a patient, who contracted Hepatitis-B viral infection after undergoing surgery, could claim compensation.
In its findings, the Delhi SCDRC observed that the patient contracted Hepatitis-B infection during his treatment in the hospital. It held that syringes and needles used during the treatment could have been the probable cause. Accordingly, it awarded lump sum costs of Rs. 50,000/- to the complainant-patient to meet the ends of justice.