The mental model of safety is incomplete and heuristic driven.

Heuristic-driven models:

Most of these workers operate in environments where after years of practice, the baseline of what normal safety is, is very low. It is considered normal to clean without gear, while some practices have peaks in risk perception (like sewers where accidents/ deaths are visible in the short-term), but those models are heuristic-driven.

  • A study found that only 5% of the sewer workers were given information about the potential hazards by the supervisor or other officials and more than 57% claimed that they learnt of the hazards of working in the sewers on the job.

  • Septic tank and sewer workers join at a young age (~16-18) and rely on experience of other workers

Conflicting relationship with safety gear:

Workers are not fully aware of the value of gear; moreover, feel that gear hampers their work (e.g. difficult to hold the shovel in case of drain cleaning, gloves are often loose and keep sliding off). A majority of workers perceive machines as substitutes rather than complements to their work: most workers fear that new machines will replace them rather than aid their work and keep them safe.

  • This was observed in our field visits and workers in similar fields (such as sweeping) have carried out protests against mechanization.

We need to increase awareness of safety gear and hazards of the job, incentivise innovation in safety gear.

This insight applies to all types of unsafe sanitation work:

What this entails: Unblocking and cleaning sewer and wastewater drains

Frequency: Complaint-based, seasonal (rainy season) and occasionally for preventive maintenance

Location: Urban areas

What this entails: Emptying, collection and transport of human waste from septic tanks on an on-demand basis

Frequency: De-sludging frequency varies greatly, ranging from 6 months to 10-15 years

LocationPrimarily urban, mostly unplanned localities

What this entails: Cleaning faecal matter from railway tracks and platforms,railway toilets and platform toilets

Frequency: several times a day

Location: Rail network and railway stations

What this entails: Emptying of dry/single-pit latrines primarily in rural areas; daily collection and transport/emptying of fecal matter

LocationPrimarily rural

What this entails: Maintaining and operating sewage and faecal sludge treatment plants on a daily basis

LocationUrban, across the ~527 STPs/FSTPs in India

What this entails: Maintaining public/community toilets (often insanitary) on a daily basis

Location: Rural and urban CTCs, mostly in slums; public convenience shelters

What this entails: Operating and maintaining school toilets on a daily basis

LocationSchools – rural and urban

What this entails: Cleaning open drains and road sweeping, often encountering fecal matter due to open defecation and insanitary latrines connected to drains

LocationUrban – drains alongside roads

What this entails: Cleaning toilets in middle-high income households/institutions, encountering insanitary conditions at times

LocationUrban areas

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