It gets ready to survey more than 15,000 workers across industries

Thirty-four-year-old Siddalinga Murthy is cursing the day he joined a renowned garment factory here 15 years ago. After putting in more than 10 years in the stonewashing unit as a sand-blaster, he came recently to the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases (RGICD), feeling distinctly unwell. The diagnosis was chilling: silicosis.

“My work was to blast sand and spray colour on jeans material to give it a worn-out appearance. I didn't know that my job would turn a health hazard. I started developing tuberculosis-like symptoms three years after I quit. Initially, the hospitals that I went to treated me for TB. It was after my symptoms worsened that I was referred to this hospital by one of the doctors,” Siddalinga Murthy told The Hindu here on Tuesday.

RGICD director Shashidhar Buggi, who found that the TB-like symptoms were related to Siddalinga Murthy's occupation, said that silicosis is often mistaken for TB as they share symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath and weight loss.

What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a fibrotic lung disorder caused by inhalation, retention and pulmonary reaction to crystalline silica during mining, stone crushing and quarrying. “In Siddalinga Murthy's case, prolonged sand-blasting and exposure to silica, which is a main part of sand, have infected his lungs,” Dr. Buggi explained. “Silicosis scars the lungs, affecting their functioning. It can be managed if detected early. It's incurable otherwise,” he said.

In March this year, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), concerned over the health of workers in the unorganised sector, especially those employed in mines, foundries and stone-crushing units, had directed all States to survey the prevalence of silicosis.

Sources in the Department of Labour said that the directive was being strictly implemented only after an NHRC team visited Karnataka for a review last month. “Although we have not been given a deadline, we have informed the NHRC that we will complete the survey by February first week,” a top official said.

Vulnerable identified

In the first phase, more than 15,000 workers of 180 factories in the seven districts of Belgaum, Bellary, Koppal, Shimoga, Chitradurga, Bangalore Urban and Bangalore Rural had been identified as vulnerable, the official said. The State Health Department and RGICD were involved in the survey.

“With the help of RGICD, we are conducting orientation workshops for doctors from the Health Department and ESI who will visit the factories identified for screening. One such workshop was conducted here on Monday,” the official said.

“We have selected iron-ore beneficiation plants in the districts of Bellary, Koppal and Chitradurga for the survey. Foundries in Shimoga and Belgaum districts and stone-crushing units in Bangalore Urban and Rural districts will also be surveyed,” he explained.

Teams of doctors will visit these factories and screen the workers for any symptoms of silicosis. Suspected cases will be referred to RGICD for further investigation and treatment. “The survey will be extended to other districts in a phased manner,” the official added.