Advances in Anthropology
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 46-53
Published Online February 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/aa) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/aa.2013.31007
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
The Effect of Working Place on Worker’s Health in a Tannery
Salauddin Biswas1*, Tawhidur Rahman2
1University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany
2Center for Sustainable Development (CSD), University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangla de s h
Received October 31st, 2012; revised December 2nd, 2012; accepted December 16th, 2012
This article investigates the causes of workers’ health problems which are integrated with their daily work
in the tanning industry, and with their daily life style pattern. The tanning industry has two opposing as-
pects; it brings economic prosperity for the country, on the other hand, it causes health problems for the
workers. Moreover, it has detrimental effects on surrounding environment as well. The workers labor in
polluted workplace inside of the industry, and live in unhygienic dwelling outside of the industry. While
the workers practice daily life culture in personal life, they practice tannery culture in their work place,
and both create health problems for them. Workers’ health has relationship with surrounding areas, equip-
ments, workplace floor, chemicals, ways of dealing with the machines, and so on, and all variables deter-
mine the workers’ health individually or as a whole. Notably, one matter is not responsible for the suffer-
ing of the tannery workers. We need to consider it from the holistic point of view.
Keywords: Tannery; Hazaribagh; Workers’ Health; Environment; Pollution; Workplace; Heavy Work;
Chemical Exposures; Personal Behaviors
Leather is an exclusive, vastly multi-dimensional, and mutu-
ally dependent material all over the world. Now more than
500,000 people are working in this sector around the world, and
the workers are increasing day by day (International Council of
Tanners, 2011: p. 1, Qattous & McCallin, 2009: p. 8). The Food
and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that the world trade
of commodities such as sugar (total, raw equivalent), coffee
(green), cotton (lint), rubber (natural dry), rice (milled) and tea
is not bigger than hides and skins trade. The growth rate of
tanning materials are increasing in developing countries rather
than in developed countries (2010: p. 29). This scenario pro-
mpts us to ask: how do developing countries like Bangladesh
produce so many products? Who produces them? And whose
health is impacted?
The Bangladeshi leather sector plays a vital role to expand
the Bangladeshi economy in terms of export and domestic
market (Penningroth, 2010; Sharif & Mainuddin, 2003: pp. 3-4;
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistic, 2007: p. 18). Currently, the
number of leather and manufacturing units in Bangladesh has
increased to 313 (International Labor Organization , 2008: p. 15 ).
Among them, approximately 300 of the tanneries are situated in
Hazaribagh, Dhaka. According to Billah et al. (2000: p. 1), about
100,000 people are engaged with this industry directly and
indirectly. In the peak season1 between 12,000 and 15,000 peo-
ple work in the tanneries and during the off season2 their num-
ber decreases to between 12,000 and 8000. However, “the
leather tanning industry has been identified as one of the main
causes of environmental pollution in the capital city of 8 mil-
lion people” (Islam, 2000: p. 1). Hazaribagh is called “a can-
cerous problem” for Dhaka city (Huda, 2008).
Scholars, environment specialist, columnist, journalist, and
NGO experts are very conscious about the environment of
Hazaribagh and Dhaka. They discuss different aspect like water,
soil, and air of the environment individually (Institute for En-
vironment and Development Studies, 2003: pp. 8-66, Arias-
Barreiro et al., 2010: p. 473, Saha et al., 2001: p. 151, Bhuiyan,
2011: p. 633, Salam & Gain, 2009: p. 152). They take “envi-
ronment” as a watchword, and neglect the workers who live in
that environment. They separate environment from the human
being and other organisms. Very few scholars talk on laborer
who work and live in Hazaribagh; even though almost all
workers live in Hazaribagh with or without family. The workers
suffer from double-edged problem: as an inhabitant, they face
surrounding environment problem directly, and as a worker of
tanning industry, they suffer from detrimental chemicals and
wastes which are generated in the tannery itself.
This article deals with surrounding environments where the
workers live, the kind of work they engage in, and the ways in
which that work affects their health. Nuwayhid (2004: p. 1916)
divided occupational health issues into two arenas—“an inter-
nal domain, which focuses on the workplace (microenviron-
ment), and an external-contextual domain, which examines the
wider social and global issues”. We are in debt to Nuwayhid for
using this terminology. As this article is about a certain area
and industry, we use internal domain to mean the internal set up
of the industry, and external domain to denote sur rounding areas.
However, if we t ake into con sider our field wo rk, and if we w an t
to draw a clear sketch of workers’ health of Moti tannery,
1Peak season starts after Eid-ul-Fitr (the biggest Islamic festival inBangla-
desh). After Eid-ul-Azha (the second biggest Islamic festival), the work o
tanning indu str y reach es i ts peak. Du ri ng Ei d-u l-Azh a, th e Mus li m sacrif ices
animals like cows and goats for the satisfaction of Allah. The availability o
the skins and hides makes peak season for the tanning industry.
2Approximately four months before Eid-ul-Fithr is off season, because
during this t ime the laborers have no enough work.
S. BISWAS, T. RAHMAN
we need to discuss the two domains, because two domains
work individually or together to determine workers’ health of
Hazaribagh (Figure 1).
Internal domain deals with workplace where workers spend
most of time of a day, and external domain covers the sur-
rounding areas where they spend rest of time outside of work-
ing hours. Hazaribagh tannery workers’ health problem is not
only limited in either internal or external domain separately but
it can be affected by the both domains together.
Work and health are integrated issues. Therefore, health
problems of workers in the tanning industry include the kinds
of work they engage in, the manner in which they work, and
conditions of the work place. Firstly, the external domain where
they live will be described. Secondly the interior setup that is
called internal domain will be talked about. Internal domain
includes floor organization, equipments, chemicals, workers’
perceptions and attitude to the equipments and chemicals etc.
This article is a result of an ethnographic research. Reflexive
and Descriptive way of writing style is followed for this article
so that after reading this study reader can imagine the real
situation of Hazaribagh. Eleven weeks long field work based on
qualitative methodology is conducted on Moti tannery, Hazari-
bagh, Dhaka. Moti tannery is a medium size industry with
about 30 workers.
Hazaribagh Thana (police station) with an area 0.01456 sq.
km or 1.456 acre is part of the Dhaka district. It is surrounded
by Mohammadpur thana on the north, Kamrangir Char thana on
the south, Dhanmondi and Lalbagh thanas on the east, Kerani-
ganj thana and Buriganga river on the west (Bangladesh Asiatic
Society). Total population is 127, 370 (Bangladesh Bureau of
Statistic, 2001: p. 1) that makes this area is one of the most con-
gested, noisy, high density and polluted area in Dhaka city.
Qualitative methods are followed for this study. Conducting
field work in tannery is a great risk for the health of researcher
in terms of malodor, hygienic problem, and harmful substances
and so on. For this reason, it is not possible to conduct partici-
pant observation; however, several light works that are not
detrimental for health are done by the researcher. Semi-struc-
ture interviews are rational for this study because workers are
always busy, and they are controlled by supervisors, chemist or
senior workers. Workers, officials, owners, family members of
workers like wife, children and parents, and the neighbors like
shopkeepers, small business man and people of other profes-
How the two domains3 affect the health.
sions take part in semi-structure interview. Focus Group Dis-
cussions (FGDs) are taken place for this study. However, as
health is not only a biological or mental state individually, it is
a holistic process; the qualitative methodology permits to draw
a good sketch of health problem of the Moti tannery of Hazari-
Little (1999: pp. 254-255) argues that in general, environ-
ment as a term is frequently used “as a synonym for nature (i.e.
the biophysical or nonhuman environment)”, but this kind of
practice formulates a “conceptual confusion because the envi-
ronment of a particular human group includes both cultural and
biophysical elements. By extension, the organism/environment
dynamic, which is relational… and perspectivist, is often erro-
neously fused with the nature/culture dualism, which is essen-
tialist and substantive.” The environment includes all sur-
roundings of any given person or object. According to the eco-
logical point of view, the environment is all factors which have
influence on the existing and reproduction of living organisms.
The environment consists of “material factors whose presence
is decisive for survival and development of living organism
(oxygen, carbon, hydrogen), and factors regulating the living
process” (Wolanski, 1980: p. 3). In Hazaribagh, tanning industry
and nature are existing together side by side, and both are part
of same environment. Tanning industry, as a part same envi-
ronment, how affects the other parts (natural and non-natural)
of same environment will take into consider in this article.
The sun is not in the mid-sky; however, it is too hot. There is
no escapable way from the wind which carries a terrible odor.
There are many narrow roads where not more than one man and
one rickshaw can go side by side. Some roads are damaged,
some are under construction, and some are only gravel, which
creates dust everywhere. Furthermore, there are many turns
within short distance, and many manholes without covers. Two
narrow drains run along the two sides of the roads. Plastic bags,
bottles and packets float in the drain. Black colored dregs from
the drain pile up on the road. Open drains are used as a toilet.
Different colored water flows in the drain for going somewhere.
Dogs made of skin and bones roam here and there. Wastes-
wastes not only from tanneries, but also from the houses where
the workers are living, are kept on the road. The city corpora-
tion has set out certain bins for throwing garbage in on the road,
but they are all full. Huge amounts of garbage surround the bins,
where reeking water and malodor (USAID, 2009: pp. 4-5)
stream from. Mosquitoes and insects fly randomly. Tokai
(street boys) search for things in the garbage. According to one
worker, “This is a hell”.
One informant says that crows like “wastes, rotten things”,
and, for this reason, a lot of crows live here. Besides crows
there are no birds; besides dogs and cats, there are no animals.
Therefore, in a environmental setting, in Hazaribagh, two or
more creatures like workers, dogs, cats, crows, poor people
make a “mutual ecology” (Fuentes, 2010: p. 600). Ecological
anthropologists are mainly concentrated on the equilibrium be-
tween human being and environment (Vayda & McCay, 1975:
p. 294). It means that creatures make an ecological niche4 in a
certain environment, which is influenced by social networks
making agents (Barth, 1956: p. 1079, Popielarz & Neal, 2007:
3The concept of two domains are taken from Nuwayhid, I. A. November
2004: 1916. Occupational health research in developing countries: a partner
for social justice. American Journal of Public Health. 94 (11).
4Fredric Birth (1956: 1079) introduced the concept of the ecological niche,
“the place o f a group in the total environ ment, its relati ons to resources and
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 47
S. BISWAS, T. RAHMAN
pp. 65-84). In Hazaribagh area, unavailability of needs forces
dogs, cats, crows to eat wastes, and compels the workers to live
with wastes. Unavailability of human basic needs—food, cloth,
shelter, education and treatment—creates such an environment
which brings the workers, poor, vulnerable, marginal and so on
under an umbrella.
Everyday up to 40,000 tones of tannery waste, including
toxic water and untanned solid wastes like raw trimmings,
fleshings, pelt-trimmings follows into the Buriganga River, the
main water bodies for trading and ferry journey (Institute for
Environment and Development Studies, 2003: pp. 8-66). Toxic
water has harmful effects on the broad spectrum of organisms
in the ecosystem (Arias-Barreiro et al., 2010: p. 473). The
wastewater falls into ponds or lagoons, and this water contami-
nates underground water, which has dangerous effects on the
human body and environment (Saha et al., 2001: p. 151; Bhui-
yan et al., 2011: p. 633; Andreas et al., n.d.: p. 24). People col-
lect drinking water either from a tube well or from a pipe to
drink. But most of the basti people use water from ponds, doba,
or Jhil (all are sources of water) for their daily use. Due to wa-
ter pollution, life of water species is negatively affected (Islam
et al., 2011: pp. 409-419, Arias-Barreiro et al., 2010: p. 472).
Hossain et al. (2007: pp. 397-416) shows that how the waste (if
it is reused) is harmful not only for Hazaribagh, but also for
uncountable numbers of people. It can be the cause of large
number of illness such as allergy, eczema and dermatitis (ibid).
Tannery creates dusts, fumes and malodors which can affect
different part of the lungs (Salam & Gain, 2009: p. 152, Tani-
mowo, 2000: p. 71, Schwartz, 1994: p. 36). Solid wastes and
toxic water are mainly generated in the tanneries, and the main
sufferers are those people, the workers, who live in the centre
and surrounding areas of Hazaribagh.
Bangladesh has to pay a high cost for environmental pollu-
tion because of leather industry. Islam et al. (2011: p. 418)
identify mismanagement, inferior technologies, lack of facilities
for treating industrial wastes, wrong approach towards industri-
alization as causes of environmental pollution. On the other
hand, Liverman et al. (1997: p. 14) identify many ingredients of
chemicals remain in environment for a long time for the suffer-
ings “vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, the
chronically ill, minorities, and the poor may be at increased risk
of harm related to environmental contamination because of
biological and demographic factors, including where they live”.
Wet floor and unplanned setup of the machines can be a
great risk for the workers’ health. In workplace of Moti tannery,
unplanned setup of the machines creates a considerable obstacle
for the movement of workers on the floor. The workplace—in
the sense of arrangement of the machines on the floor, paths of
walking, electric circulation, tools, water supply, lighting, ven-
tilation, washroom, safety dress, place of rest, etc., create a in-
door environment in the workplace which has direct influence
like injuries on workers’ health (World Health Organization,
2006: p. 2).
The narrow walking paths inside the Moti tannery cause
many injuries of the workers. Basically, there are no specific
paths on the floor. On the ground floor the paths are made be-
tween the machines, and between the manual workplaces and
machines. Many machines such as drying, shaving, splitting,
and coloring are set up on the ground floor. The first floor is
decorated with five machines—a plate (to dry and iron), a be-
gum (to iron and soft), a buffer (to make thin), a toggle (to dry),
and fine skin measurement machine (to measure). The rest of
the place is used as a drying and packing section. The second
floor is almost empty; only three outworn machines are kept
there. Like the ground floor, on the first and second floor there
are no fixed paths to walk. The southern sides of first and sec-
ond floors are open, while the ground floor is surrounded by
From the beginning of field work till the end many things are
coped except the lighting system on the floor. The workers are
used to working in this dim light. On the ground floor, when
the blue materials (after chroming skin is called blue material),
finished or non-finished materials are selected and scrutinized,
they use an extra lighting system. Three or four tube lights are
tied together with a plate that generates powerful lighting.
Rafique5 informs that he lost the power of his eyes because of
low power of the lights. A lot of dusts and fumes make the
lights dim. Furthermore, there is no chance of sun light on the
ground floor to enter. The ground floor of the tannery is always
wet due to lack of sunlight. In the winter season, sufferings of
the workers become twice on the wet floor. As there are no
heating system and arrangement of hot water, the workers toil
in cold environment with cold wa ter.
On the ground floor there are no windows or extra doors
apart from the main gate. There are only two ventilators with
adjuster fans; however, the adjuster fans do not work. Except
for a couple of stand fans, there are no ceiling fans. Kalam ac-
knowledged that during the summer season, over-sweating
makes them tired, and creates breathing problems because of
the scarcity of fresh air.
In Moti tannery the owners arrange water from the under-
ground that is used for both drinking and production. Two pipes,
one for coming water from underground and another for circu-
lating water, are inside the tannery. The pipes are fixed with a
pillar, and the water is reserved in an underground reservoir
which is called tanky. However, the water tank has no cover.
The mouth of the tank is equal level to the floor. RC-Cola bot-
tle floats over the tank water. The workers put their dirty
clothes on the pipes when they take rest, and water and fluids
from the clothes drop in the tank water. Moreover, blue materi-
als are pilled beside the tank. Chrome water from blue materials
crawls and drips into the tank slowly. When water comes from
the underground, it is preserved in a pot for whole day. But
some workers drink the tank water directly. They think that
tank water is good; it comes from the deep underground.
About the toilet, Pinto says, “If you enter in the toilet, you
will die.” There is no hygienic toilet culture in Moti tannery
whatsoever. There is one toilet for all workers, men and women.
The toilet is at the corner of the tannery-beside the drum of
sulfuric acid. There is no cover of the door. One drum is in
front of the workers’ toilet, which is used as a cover of the door.
There is no water supply in the toilet-the workers bring water
from the pipe outside. It is completely unclean and full of
malodor, adds Pinto.
Das and Grady (1983: p. 434) say “small changes in work-
place dimensions can have considerable impact on worker pro-
ductivity and occupational safety and health”. In this statement
the author says “small changes”. It means that there is a stan-
5All names of the workers are pseudonym.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
S. BISWAS, T. RAHMAN
dard scientific set up of instruments in workplace and the
workers do one particular work. If one position of the floor,
workplace or instrument is changed, occupational safety can be
hampered. Therefore, the Moti tannery is an example of a non-
standard scientific set up—unplanned floor, old model equip-
ments, unhygienic toilets and scattered drain on the work floor
which make workers’ health more extremely vulnerable.
Bamboo Mara as a Symbol of Heavy Works
In Bangladesh workers’ muscle power is used widely, and it
is the main requirement for the production (Ahsan et al., 1999:
pp. 385-386). This statement is completely true for the workers
of Moti tannery. There is no job in Moti tannery without using
“heavy physical work” (ibid) or exerting extra pressure on body
parts. In this paper, the term, “bodily works” is used to mean
those activities which create extra pressure on body and cause
workers’ sufferings. Bodily works could be minimized by in-
troducing some initiatives on interior arrangements and modern
equipments claimed Jakir, one worker.
Waez, another worker, says “The body does not remain
body”. The workers think that multi dimensional works make
pressure on different parts of body, and such kind of workloads
can even destroy their stomachs. According to Jakir, “My mood
becomes hot because of repetition of work”. This repetition
does not mean doing one work again and again; however, it
means the unnecessary repetition of works. From the beginning
to the end of production, the workers have to do one kind work
several times in Moti tannery. Jakir claims that repetitions
might be reduced if the place of the building, machines, interior
set up and working tools are improved.
Carrying leathers, raw hides and skins from one place to an-
other in same floor or in another floor is done manually. There
is no elevator to carry materials from one floor to another floor.
To carry the skins, the workers pile them up on a bamboo pole
and carry it in pairs on their shoulders, which they call bamboo
mara. They normally carry twenty to thirty skins and hides on
the bamboo (weighing approximately sixty to hundred kilo-
grams). With this bamboo they climb the stairs which have no
railings, go from one corner to another corner crossing the wet
floor, run from one machine to another machine within narrow
paths. They use one metaphor to express this work; haler goru
(the cow for plowing). This work is carried out by the each
worker in the Moti tannery, excluding old, injured and women
workers. Consequently, Rafiq utters: “during my young age,
work was not work to me; I brought sixty skins with a worker
who has died several years ago. This work has made me an
aged person, weak and lame.”
Babul, a worker, not so tall, and not more than 14 years old,
is working in the toggle section (skin is put on a table that is
entered in a hot chamber for extra drying). The toggle section is
not on even floor, rather the floor is on a slope. The Toggle
table is as tall as his chest. He has to press the table again and
again standing on uneven floor. Iron made hooks are entered in
the thumb for this special work. The consequence of this work
is, according to Babul, “No skin remains in the thumb, feel
chest pain”. Moreover, this work is conducted by the heat of
gas fire that makes this place constantly hot. “It creates jaun-
dice in my nails and eyes”, adds Babul.
In Moti tannery, workers talk about their body frequently.
For instance, they say dehe bamo (diseased body), durbol deho
(week body), shorir kharap (bad body) and so on. The worker
emphasizes the “physical entity” (Wolputte, 2004: p. 251) to
mean the body, which is used during work in the industry.
Mary Douglas divids the body into two paradigms, social body
and physical body (1996: p. 69); however, Nancy Scheper-
Hughes and Margaret Lock distinguish three different spheres
of the body: 1) individual body, 2) social body and 3) body
politic (1987: pp. 8-30). In Moti tannery, the physical body is
the first significant body; because, for the worker the body
means the physical body; “other bodies” place in second posi-
tion. Mauss (1973: p. 70) said that the body is “from the con-
crete to the abstract and not the other way around”. The owners
of the tannery only see workers bodies as something “concrete”
that they can exploit as a material element, but the workers, at
the same time, also think that this is a part of an injustice done
to them, because their bodies are not just something physical,
they have “other bodies”. To the workers “other bodies” mean
mon or athma (mental body). For example, they say, “Mind is
not good or mind does not want” frequently. But mon or athma
is not their matter of discussion. For the workers, the physical
body is an asset which is invested for earning money to sustain
According to Mauss (1973: p. 70), “The body is man’s first
and most natural instrument”. The body is one of the main mys-
teries for anthropology due to its being simultaneously the man-
datory entity in the social world, and the most indefinable. So-
cial knowledge, practical knowledge and thinking processes
give the meanings of the body. The body is a thing in the uni-
verse and an ongoing process that creates social action and is
created by social action (St. Christian, 2002: pp. 14-15). The
body is not an ending process, “but rather the end of one kind
of body and the beginning of another kind of body” (Emily
Martin, 1992: p. 121). When the workers stay at home, their
physical bodies perform as they wish. For an example, they can
have food or go to the market when they wish. It means that
they can control their bodies according to their desire. But
when the worker enters in the tannery, another body, which is
proposed “controlled body”, is produced on which the worker
has no control. Controlled body is dominated by the tannery
owners, supervisors, chemists or seniors. On the other hand,
probably two bodies remain simultaneously. When they are in
the tannery the familial body is hidden here, and the controlled
body works. Again, when they go back at home, the familial
body performs and controlled body remains hidden. This trans-
formation from one body to another body occurs unconsciously.
In every situation, body is controlled by the society. But by
“control”, means those controls which make pressure on other
The body of the worker is considered only the obvious object;
it has to be changed depending on the time and workload. At
the beginning of their work, in the morning, the workers see the
body as joibon kal (young age), and at the evening it turns to
bura kal (old age). Their bodies also transform from dhir deho
(slow body) to challu deho (quick body) depending on the work
load. However, the words which are used to discuss their body
performances do not only demonstrate transformation of the
body; rather, these words are also used in a metaphoric sense.
Metaphor is “an expression which describes a person or ob-
ject in a literary way by referring to something that is consi-
dered to have similar characteristics to the person or object you
are trying to describe” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online).
Wanger (1986: p. 5) describes metaphor as the mirror of matter,
and it is relative, perfect and appropriate to describe the issue.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 49
S. BISWAS, T. RAHMAN
By the metaphor of the body the workers try to express their
vulnerability. For the workers of Moti tannery the body is a
machine without feelings. It can work for a long time without
rest. Like a machine, operators can control it. In western society
the body metaphor is conceptualized as “an internal combustion
engine or as a battery driven machine” (Helman, 2007: p. 32).
The main concept of body metaphor is that the individual part
of the body is like a machine, or it works like a machine. It is
changable or replaceable. It has wave, and mind is a processor
and storehouse of information and so on (ibid). However, the
workers of the Moti tannery imagine the body in two ways; the
body as a machine like western society, and another metaphor
is feelings of human body like a machine. Actually, the ma-
chine has no life or feelings. Like machines they should not
have any feelings, can not say “no” after a long time work. If
they are injured a little, they have no time to care it. However,
they use this sense to demonstrate their rest/unrest, time/over-
time, good/bad, and movement or stable situation of the body in
the work place.
Dilemma of Chemical Exposure
Chemical exposure as a topic is a hidden matter in Moti tan-
nery. Normally, no workers talk about it. First question is asked
“How do you come into contact with the chemicals?” Raju, a
strong young man, about 20 years old, gives an indifferent an-
swer: “there is any work without chemical.” The Bangla mean-
ing of “come into contact” is shongsporsho. Basically, Raj u ca n
not understand the word, shongsporsho; that is why he gives
the answer in another way.
The workers have “their own language, their own interpreta-
tion, their own way of seeing it and “have their being” within
it…they refashion an industrial world suit themselves” (Zona-
bend, 2009: p. 170). In Moti tannery, the workers use the words,
laga or dhora to express chemical exposure. However, these
words are not enough to express “chemical exposure”. The
Bangla meaning of “exposure” could be “shongsporsho”—the
word that have used during the field work. It is an academic
and high scale Bangla word. Therefore, many words are needed
to describe chemical exposure to the workers. In this milieu, we
can assume that the concept of chemical exposure is not an
established truth in the tannery culture in where the workers are
the members (workers’ perception on chemicals and chemical
exposure will be discussed later on). Currently, it is a matter for
policy makers and scholars in Bangladesh.
Kalam uses one mask during mixing of dyeing powders but
he and other workers do not use anything to protect them from
the chemical smell. Through touching, inhaling and ingesting,
the workers come in contact with the toxic chemicals. But for
them, when the chemical gaye lage (comes in contact with the
body); it is chemical exposure. Chemicals, or more precisely,
toxic chemicals, are dose-dependent substances. A non-toxic
substance might be toxic if the dose is very high, and a heavy
toxic substance can be safe if the dose is not too high enough.
(Hill, 2010: p. 57). In the tannery, the owners have no relation-
ship with the workers; clever supervisor considers the workers’
bodies as machines that can be control however he likes. No
persons or organizations who can decide what is toxic or none
toxic are visible during field work.
After reviving the skins and hides on the main road, the
workers bring them into the tannery. They have no vehicle for
carrying them except their heads. Salt from skins and hides fall
on the head and the body. Salt was given on skins almost one
month ago. The workers perceive it as regular salt rather than
chemical. It is the first contact the workers have to a chemical.
One question, “Is salt a chemical?” has asked almost all work-
ers. Aside from Khair who was in Lebanon every worker be-
lieves that salt is not a chemical. Even lime is not a chemical to
them. To them, chemicals are powder and liquid which have a
distinct smell and color.
During the soaking (a process of removing blood, dung and
other dirt), water, antiseptic and detergents are used to clean the
skins and hides. In the same way, during unhairing (to remove
hair), liming (to swell up the flesh), de-liming (to remove the
lime), batting (to remove the rest of hairs) and tannings differ-
ent types of chemicals are used. Generally, the workers do not
touch the chemical directly, but come in contact in different
ways. The before mentioned processes are conducted through
the drums. For transferring chromed skins from one drum to
another, they use either iron made angta (equipment with which
one pitch of skin can hold) or hands. Furthermore, after proc-
essing skins in drums, they are put on the floor. Poisonous
chemical water comes out and wet the floor. The workers walk
on them without any safety shoes. When they pile up blue or
chrome materials, they come in contact with chemicals again
The second stage of the contact with chemicals starts during
the re-chrome and dyeing. Normally, Kalam, Jakir and Taher
are responsible for this work. They collect different kinds of
chemicals and dyes from different places in the tannery. During
the use of sulfuric acid, they are cautious; however, other
chemicals are carried just like water. Most of the workers con-
sider that Kalam, Jakir and Taher are under dangerous threat
because they have direct contact with the chemicals, while oth-
ers have indirect contact. To them, direct and indirect contact
means the place of the work and type of the work. Touching or
transferring chrome leather is not direct contact for them, be-
cause it comes via water and materials.
The third stage of chemical exposure begins when skins go
for final production machines. For each machine there are mul-
tiple workers working together. One person collects or holds
the skins up, another one or two persons put it in the machine.
Another one or two people hold the processed materials.
Therefore, for one stage of work more than one person comes
in contact repeatedly with chemicals. Aside from few workers
(women, sick and old), no one has any set work. This is another
way to come in contact with chemicals through multiple tasks.
This system of the work makes workers more susceptible to
Personal behaviors cause of chemical exposure in Moti tan-
nery. The workers of Moti tannery consider that they have no
jhuki (risk) in chemical exposure; rather they are at risk when
they work with machines. Nuronnobi who mainly works with
fleshing machine (to separate fat and flesh from the skin) says,
“What kind of risk chemicals have? Risk is in this work! Any-
time, hand can go out. Adnan worked with me. One day we
were working together. Suddenly shouting! In a moment, I saw,
he has no wrist. Now he is a man without hand, lives in village,
Barisal.” Like Nurunnabi other workers also do not believe in
chemical risk. One reason for not believing in chemical risk
could be visibility. The dangerousness of chemical cannot be
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
S. BISWAS, T. RAHMAN
seen in normal settings, on the other hand, machinery risk such
as injury or accident can always be seen. In tannery, risk is
everywhere: in every work, in every machine, and in every
chemical. Therefore, according to my field work, like Dauglas
& Wildavsky it would be better to be called “danger” rather
than risk because “there are also risks that are unknown” (1982:
p. 221). For the toxicologist, risk depends on experimental data,
safety factors, probability and judgment (Olajos & Salem, 2000:
p. 269). But analyzing risk creates another risk if the “underly-
ing process” (Roberts, 2009: p. 23) is not discussed. The quan-
titative approach of public health uses the risk factors as vari-
ables that interpret or reject individuals to ill health; it allows
individuals into low risk or high risk categories (Panter-Brick &
Fuentes, 2009: p. 5). However, risk perception and assessment
in anthropology includes a holistic process, technological haz-
ards, water contamination, toxic-waste, radioactive contamina-
tion, technology acceptance, risk perception and exposure to
technology, disaster prone industry and culture, effect on soci-
ety and culture and so on (Smith, 1996: p. 319). “Risk percep-
tion and assessment are grounded in the cultural norms and
values that both govern and are embedded in the relationships
that human communities have with their physical and social
The vushi (vushi is produced after shaving the wet blue ma-
terials) and saliva is used to stop bleeding if any one cuts their
legs, fingers and hands. To prevent them from malodor or
chemical gas, Monir acknowledges, they smoke. Rafique says,
“Blue (one kind of processed leather that is made with chrome
and other chemicals) is for making cold.” If the workers burn
their hands, they put it in the pile of blue materials. Chrome is
one of the most harmful substances for the body; however, they
use it without any hesitation. Cutting fingers and legs are a very
common part of daily work of Moti Tannery. However, they
have no first aid kit in the tannery. They use tannery waste that
is full of chrome to save them.
After drinking water, the workers dry the mouth with the
lungi (a piece of cloth that is used for lower portion of the body)
that has probably been using for several weeks in the workplace.
Using dirty dress and having dry food during the work is com-
monly seen in Moti tannery. For argumentation’s sake, it could
be put that they have not enough money to buy good clothes or
they have not enough time to eat food, or they have no right
place for having food. But this is not all correct. Personal be-
haviors and life styles which are embodied from personal life
reflect as risk during their working life. “Each society has its
own special habits…These “habits” do not just vary with indi-
viduals and their imitations, they vary especially between so-
cieties, educations, proprieties and fashions, prestiges. In them
we should see the techniques and work of collective and indi-
vidual practical reason (Mauss, 1973: pp. 71-73).” They learn
the behavior and lifestyle from the society in which they are
born in, and from the new society or environment where they
work. Therefore, worker’s personal behavior/lifestyle that is
responsible for risk is a collective arrangement.
“Poison destroys the poison” is a common proverb in Bangla
language as well as in Moti tannery. And even, the workers
practice this proverb in their daily lives in Moti tannery. The
workers enjoy leisure time from 10:00 AM to 10:15 AM, only
fifteen minutes. They wash their hands before having tiffin in
leisure time. All workers, including children, use chemicals like
LD (EMMULSOL DD) to clean their hands. Suvo, a child
worker says, “It is LD (EMMULSOL DD), we use it as soap”.
He could not give any reason for using LD as soap.
Every workers in Moti tannery use LD as soap. LD is used
almost for every procedure in tannery for productions. This
chemical is used for removing the dirt from the skins and hides.
The common perception of the workers is LD cleans their
hands like skins and hides. Therefore, they use it for cleaning
their hands before eating. Nurunnobi gives further information
about LD. He says “Our work is so dangerous… these skins
and hides are left for many days, many germs are created in
them, and chemicals create many germs… this LD demolishes
germs and poisons.” The inscription of the drum that contains
LD has been checked. According to the inscription the real
name is EMMULSOL DD. “Avoid contact with skin” is written
on the drum. Jakir shows another substance that was fat. The
real name of fat is SULTIT CR. The workers also use it to clean
their hands. If the dye spills on their hands, and LD or fat does
not work, they use sulfuric acid with the water. These chemi-
cals are used for cleaning working dress if they have no soap
there. The workers use chemicals to protect themselves from
“Chemicals are double-edge swords” (Penningroth, 2010: p.
1); it is good and harmful for the society. The chemicals or the
workers (as a member of society) do not determine chemicals
as a good or bad substance. Organizations or persons who are
responsible for indicating good or bad should do this work. End
of the day truth is workers are the main sufferer from chemical
exposure because they have no opportunity to avoid it.
This study argues that the health of the workers can be af-
fected by the environment, workplace, kinds of work, way of
work, society and culture, and personal behaviors and lifestyle.
The health problems of the workers involve a holistic process,
rather than just one factor, and all factors are integrated with the
workers’ lives. The workers control machines and tools, and
also the other way around, machines and tools control the
workers’ body. Therefore, the interior set up of the industry
dominates the range of health problems of the worker, because
the workers’ first threat comes from the inside of the tannery
where they work. Furthermore, outdoor environments, neigh-
bors, society, culture and ecology influence the workers’ body
because they live in these variables. The physical body is the
main asset for the workers. They invest it in order to achieve
better lives. They emphasize on the visible body that they can
use. To visualize the suffering of their body and everyday life,
the workers use different kind of metaphors. However, some of
their metaphors are different from western thought. They use
body metaphor not only to describe the body construction, but
to illustrate their condition.
The common slogan of many disciplines, including public
health, is that chemical exposure is very harmful for the body,
or chemicals are dose-dependent substances. This is true, and
we of course need them. At the same time, however, we need to
know the reasons of chemical exposure. This paper illustrates
that chemical and risk is a stagnant theme. The actors decide
the frequency of chemical exposure and risk. The actors are
dominated by the society and culture. Therefore, health prob-
lems of the workers are not only involving biological entity, but
the creation of the respective society and culture. Society and
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 51
S. BISWAS, T. RAHMAN
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