A room on the ground floor of a two-storey office building, in a congested area of Lahore, has glass windows that allow in some natural light to add to the glow of the energy savers. A group of people have gathered inside this place with makeshift seating arrangement. Apparently, they are waiting for some visitors to arrive.
Soon the wait is over, and a host of people enter the room. These are individuals with burnt limbs, amputated fingers, lost eyesight, partial paralysis, and many other medical conditions. They are here to talk about their life experiences, the accidents that caused them these physical harms, and how these could have been avoided.
It turns out that they are employees of the safety wing of the Lahore Electric Supply Company (LESCO), who have been tasked with creating awareness about the need to adopt safety measures while working on electricity lines, transformers etc. The audience comprises the Lesco staff, mainly the linemen (LMs) and assistant linemen (ALMs) who have to deal with high-voltage wires, climb electricity poles, remove faults in transformers, and even handle transmission wires during rain.
As per sources in Lesco, this safety wing was formed a couple of years ago. The purpose was to accommodate the staff that could not perform duties due to their physical disabilities caused by electrocution, falls, or other accidents, and raise awareness about the risks involved in the job.
The safety wing is supposed to visit different sub divisions and talk to the Lesco staffers about their experience and the kind of precautionary measures they should have taken but they did not.
It is common knowledge that the staff of the electricity supply companies is among the most vulnerable workforces in the country. Every year, scores of casualties are reported, and the number of serious injuries is even higher. One wonders why it is so and the measures taken for the safety of staffers are not delivering the desired results.
There are times when the numbers come down, due to strict observance of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), but mostly such accidents happen due to the negligence by the workers as well as their seniors.
Sajid Kazmi, Central Vice President, Pakistan Wapda Hydro Electric Union, tells TNS that the number of casualties among electricity workers is around 100 per year on average, whereas the injuries are between 200 to 300 in all of the country, that is if one looks at the figures over the last couple of years.
For Lahore, Kazmi says, the casualties have generally hovered between 30 and 40 but recently the number has come down considerably. He says that some “result-oriented steps were taken in the recent past, but more needs to be done.”
He also points out the reasons why and how to secure the lives of staffers. For instance, he says, the Tools & Plant (T&P) equipment, also called safety equipment, provided to the linemen is not up to the mark. Besides, it is not easily available in Lesco stocks. The workers have to buy these from the market. “The union held talks with the management and succeeded in getting an allowance of Rs15,000 for the purpose, after every quarter, but this amount is too little for a team of 20 to 25 people.
“Equipment such as leather gloves, and shoes have to be replaced regularly due to the wear-and-tear. In many cases, the workers are harmed because of the poor quality belt that they have to support breaks.
It turns out that the existing infrastructure is outdated and faulty, and causes harm to workers. There have been deaths and injuries caused by leakage of oil from old transformers and ignition of fire for this very reason.
The yardstick to gauge the performance of a worker is unrealistic: The meter readers and linemen are supposed to cover areas spanning tens of squares of kilometres, without considering that many of them use bicycles for commuting or even walk to perform their duty.
Often they are overworked and lose attention which results in them getting in contact with high-voltage wires or electricity poles with electric current flowing through them.
There is a severe shortage of employees but the government is not recruiting more people to overcome the human resource gap. Clearly, it is doing so to make Lesco attractive for privatisation as less staff means less expenditure and fewer liabilities.
A lineman, who does not want to be named, says that if they buy safety equipment from the market, they are penalised and their dues are not cleared in the event of an accident at work. “The quality of equipment procured by Lesco is so poor that it’s suicidal to use it.”
He adds there are occasions when they have to work under stress and against their will, like in rain, on the pressure exerted by influentials which causes harm to them.
Sajid Kazmi confirms this, saying how some years ago a lineman was forced by a senior officer to work on a pole outside his house. “Since he had done double shift and was very tired, the poor man lost balance and fell off from the pole, and died. The union took to the streets, sought action against the said official and later on made him pay a handsome amount as compensation to the deceased’s family.”
He urges on the concerned authorities to find solutions to the problem. “Ad hoc solutions will not work,” he declares.
Kazmi is sure that the union will never allow privatisation of Lesco, so the government should realise that the workers are there to stay and must be looked after properly.
Farooq Butt, an office bearer in Lesco Meter Readers’ Union, complains it has become too difficult for meter readers to perform their duties, as they have become vulnerable. “They’ve to take readings of hundreds of meters with their mobile phones. Initially, they were supposed to take readings of 70 meters but now the number has been increased to 300 or so.”
He adds that the employees have to often jump or climb so that they can reach up to the level of an electricity meter. “The meter readers also face the risk of electrocution and falling to the ground because a lot of times the meters are placed high on the electricity poles. Sadly, the company is not doing much to help this issue.”
When contacted, the Lesco spokesman Imran Afzal rejected the allegation that the safety equipment is not up to the mark and that it is not provided to the staff. “There is a safety wing that ensures that the SOPs are strictly enforced,” he says. “Besides, a procurement committee at Lesco procures safety equipment on a regular basis and as per the prescribed standard for distribution among workers. It is not true that the staffers are compelled to buy it from the market.”
About working under stress, he says, there are strict orders for the field staff and their seniors to ensure that all precautionary measures are duly taken and the workers are not overworked. “The former Lesco chief Wajid Kazmi introduced some revolutionary steps in this regard and put the workers’ safety before everything else. If a person is found working without taking the required precautions, he along with his immediate bosses shall be suspended.”
According to Afzal, the current chief has taken things forward and is striving to make the lives of workers secure. “If a worker is ready to take the risk of working in a tricky situation, out of pressure from someone or for the sake of money, he is being suicidal. The staffers should show responsibility as well.”
Union leader Kazmi confirms the role played by the former Lesco chief Wajid in making the workers’ life secure but adds that the issues he took up were related mostly to the physical side of the problem: “Providing peace of mind, stress-free environment, relief from excessive workload, a feeling of security at job are some of the equally important things that can do wonders in this regard.”