All that glitters: Safety concerns in India’s Mica industry

In the first part of their report on Indian mica mines and processing units, Pranav Sinha and Nidhi Gupta look at the industry’s devastating safety record

“We dug with our bare hands. We found my younger daughter, who had clawed and dragged herself out of the soil despite her broken leg. But Laxmi was dead by the time we found her; she was not breathing. There was no life in her.”

Those are Parwati Devi’s last memories of her 12-year-old daughter Laxmi Kumari, who died in a mine collapse in 2017. The girls were not playing in an abandoned mineshaft, they were working – searching for mica.
 
With every cosmetic item that we buy – from blusher to eyeshadow, lip gloss and nail varnish to shampoo and conditioner – and with every new phone and laptop we enjoy, we bring thousands of workers, including children, closer to their deathbed. This is the ugly truth behind the glitter of cosmetics, the shine of metallic automotive paints and the convenience of electronic gadgets. This ubiquitous mineral is in our make-up cabinets, hairdryers, toasters, cars, laptops, tablets, mobile phones and so many other everyday items and products.

Mica use can be broken down into three categories:
•    Mica as a pearlescent pigment, added to paints/coatings, cosmetics, plastics and ink to create a sparkling effect. Pearlescent pigment manufacturers account for 60% of the tonnages and export values of the Indian states of Jharkhand and Bihar.
•    Mica in electrical and electronic equipment, used as an insulator, in capacitors and commutators, and in household equipment such as hairdryers and toasters.
•    Mica as a functional filler, in plasterboard, fibre cement, plastics, shampoos and conditioners. Apart from its use in sparkling paints, mica is also used for other applications in the automotive sector, including in tyres, bitumen foils, brake pads and clutches.

Mica mines are found in the Indian states of Bihar, Jharkand, Rajasthan and Andra Pradesh. Dutch research organisation SOMO estimates that India produces 150,000-200,000 tonnes of mica each year, and it exported 128,000 tonnes in 2013-14. About 62% of this was exported to China, with the next biggest exports going to Japan, the US, the Netherlands and France. In 2015, the turnover of the mica business in the single district of Giridih was more than US$43m.

Most of these mines do not have valid government licenses and permits (or their permits have expired), even as they expand production. Of the mica mines in Bihar and Jharkhand, for example, 90% operate without valid licences – and it is estimated that 70% of all mica produced in India comes from such illegal mines and waste dumps.

Absence of enforcement is emboldening mine owners and strengthening their belief that it is easy to violate safety and labour regulations. They do not feel the need to comply with regulations, bragging about their ‘reach’ extending to Ranchi and Patna, the state capitals of Jharkhand and Bihar respectively. The extreme poverty and lack of alternative employment opportunities in the mica-mining areas of India also add to the exploitation of workers in these regions – according to 2013 data, 36.9% of the population in Jharkhand and 33.7% in Bihar live below the poverty line.

 

Laissez-faire attitudes

There are several safety hazards at the mica mines and processing units, and the business owners do nothing to mitigate them. Workers have become so used to these conditions that they have rationalised the risk and lost the constant sense of unease that keeps people safe.

The cultural and systemic challenges to be overcome at these mines include:
1.    The inclination to invest the least possible time and finance in risk control. Human life is cheap in India: a mica worker’s life is worth approximately US$1,500
2.    No understanding of the competence required for various tasks, and no means to assess competence
3.    No understanding of the risks associated with tasks, and no information on appropriate risk mitigation measures
4.    Grossly inadequate or non-existent training on job-specific risks
5.    No standardisation or control of equipment, and no mechanism to assess and confirm that equipment is fit for purpose and safe to use
6.    No recording or investigation of past injuries and accidents
7.    No emergency response plans (ERPs)
8.    No risk mitigation measures at most mines and processing units. Where these do exist, risk mitigation is limited to an assortment of worn-out and ineffective personal protective equipment (PPE) – damaged helmets, scratched safety glasses, dust-filled masks, torn safety shoes, cloth gloves. This damaged PPE can actually increase the risk of injury, either directly or because they provide a false sense of security.

 

Electrical safety

The most commonly used tool is the electrically-operated jackhammer, usually powered by electricity from a diesel generator. As the work progresses, the cables snake all over the hillside or open pit mine, with no protection for the wire’s insulation or for the workers. In mines and processing units, it is common to see electrical cables whose insulation is worn out, and that have multiple open joints. A common improvisation employed by workers is to insulate a joint or other bare wire by wrapping it in plastic. Little do they realise that this could result in a fire. 

 

Confined spaces

As miners follow the mica veins into the bowels of the earth, they often find themselves working in narrow underground shafts and tunnels, designed and constructed no more scientifically than a rabbit’s burrow. Often, there isn’t room for a person to stand within the shafts, and miners must crawl into these dark, dust-laden burrows even as the base of the shaft (itself made of mica and other minerals), disintegrates. Every working hour, they face the risk of being trapped by a mine collapse, with no means of communication and no emergency exit. The mine that puts food on their table could well become their grave.

 

Work at height

For mica deposits on the surface, or on hillsides, work crews are deployed to shear away extraneous matter. This means that miners spend hours working on sheer rock faces as high as 200 metres, or on ledges of open pit mines that can be several metres above the base. They are provided with no fall prevention or arrest measures, such as safety harnesses anchored to a stable structure. Improvised ladders and scaffolds, and brutally long hours of work in the scorching sun, with no or minimal hydration, also exacerbate the risks.  

 

Machine safety

Heavy earth moving machinery (HEMM) is commonly used in mica mines, while processing units use an assortment of mechanised equipment, such as conveyors, sieves, ball mills, grinders, crushers and packaging units. The risks involved in working with these machines are not appropriately understood or controlled. Guarding is not provided to moving parts of mechanical equipment which can cause life-altering injury or even death. No procedures are followed for safe operation of HEMM, and no safety inspections or preventive maintenance is conducted. Machine-related injuries are common, and mostly go unreported and un-investigated.

 

Hand safety

A large number of hand tools, such as chippers, knives and hammers, are used to separate sheets of mica from surrounding material. Many of these tools are handmade, field-fabricated or improvised, and their design does not take worker safety into account. There is also no hand protection for the women and child workers who use these tools, meaning lacerations and finger-crush injuries are common. When combined with a lack of adequate medical care and an unclean working environment, an already vulnerable population of workers is made even more susceptible to infectious diseases.

 

ERPs

In most mines and processing units, there is either no ERP at all, or the one that exists is a generic document with extremely vague and ambiguous measures suggested for conditions such as earthquakes, floods and terrorist attacks, and lacks information on operation-specific emergencies, the roles and responsibilities of staff members and the procedures to follow in emergencies. This amplifies the risks posed by mismanagement of electrical safety, work in confined spaces, work at heights and work with power tools and HEMMS.

 

The consumer role

If the consumer is the king in our capitalist society then it is on us, the consumers, to bring about the necessary changes. We must shop consciously and think about whether the products we buy are worth human lives. By choosing wisely, and shunning products that use mica that is tainted by human suffering, consumers can create change in the industry’s mindset and force it to produce responsibly.

 

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