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Bangladesh’s Leather Industry is Facing a ‘Health and Safety Crisis’

Workers in Bangladesh’s export-oriented leather industry in Savar are facing a “health and safety crisis” due to unsafe working conditions, a new study suggested last month.

Sixty-one percent of tannery workers suffer from health problems stemming from the absence of safety precautions and equipment, according the Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE), a local labor-rights group that surveyed 105 workers from 16 tanneries, two leather-goods factories and two footwear manufacturers.

Nearly 27 percent of respondents complained of headaches, 19 percent of skin burns, 17 percent of hand and leg pains, 14 percent of allergies and 11 percent of knee and back aches. Others were plagued by nose irritation, sleep problems, blurred vision, jaundice or breathing issues.

When it came to specific workplace shortfalls, 33 percent highlighted among their grievances inadequate lighting, 22 percent chemical gases, 21 percent ambient pollution, 19 percent chemicals of the manufacturing process and 17 percent dust.

The vast majority of those interviewed—93 percent—said they received no training prior to beginning their work. Only 67 percent of tannery and leather workers claimed to receive adequate protection such as gloves, masks, goggles and boots. A few of the factories OSHE examined housed first aid units, dining rooms, canteens and welfare officers, but none included restrooms, childcare rooms or safety committees.

OSHE presented its report, “Occupation Health and Safety Baseline Study in Leather Supply Chain of Bangladesh” during a a multi-stakeholder meeting about the promotion of decent work at leather supply chain.

Bangladesh’s toxic tanneries have long been an albatross around the neck of its billion-dollar leather industry, which employs 558,000 people and produces 180 million square feet of hides and skins per year, according to research from the University of Northampton.

Shahab Uddin, the country’s minister of environment, said at a Targets for Sustainable Development Goals meeting last week that strict action will soon be taken against pollution in the Savar tannery zone, though he did not delve into specifics.