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Hazards issue 120, October-December 2012
Material damage. Toxic tanneries cause lasting harm
As workers as young as 11 fall sick in tanneries in Bangladesh, the country’s government is standing by and doing nothing. Research by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals workers in many leather tanneries in the Hazaribagh neighbourhood of Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, become ill because of exposure to hazardous chemicals and are injured in horrific workplace accidents.

The tanneries export leather worth hundreds of millions of dollars for use in luxury goods. The 101-page report, ‘Toxic tanneries: The health repercussions of Bangladesh’s Hazaribagh leather’, documents “an occupational health and safety crisis among tannery workers, both men and women, including skin diseases and respiratory illnesses caused by exposure to tanning chemicals, and limb amputations caused by accidents in dangerous tannery machinery.”

Pollution from the tanneries means the ill-health spills over into the community. HRW senior health researcher Richard Pearshouse said: “While the government takes a hands-off approach, local residents fall sick and workers suffer daily from their exposure to harmful tannery chemicals.”

The human rights group says government officials admit they do not enforce environmental or labour laws at the tanneries. The Hazaribagh tanneries, which make up about 90 per cent of the industry nationwide, employ up to 15,000 workers. Workers told HRW that many tanneries did not supply appropriate or sufficient protective equipment or training to work with the harmful chemicals and aging machinery. Some managers deny sick leave or compensation to workers who fall ill or who are injured on the job, in violation of Bangladeshi law.

Children, some as young as 11, were engaged in hazardous work, such as soaking hides in chemicals, cutting tanned hides with razor blades, and operating dangerous tanning machinery. Women and girls said that they are paid less than men and that, in addition to their own work, they must also perform tasks normally performed by men.

“The Hazaribagh tanneries effectively operate in an enforcement-free zone and the government has ignored deadline after deadline for solving the problem,” Pearshouse said. “Foreign companies that import leather produced in Hazaribagh should ensure that their suppliers aren’t violating health and safety laws or poisoning the environment.”

Toxic tanneries: The health repercussions of Bangladesh’s Hazaribagh leather, Human Rights Watch, October 2012.


YOUNG HEADS  These young children are exposed to toxic chemicals that can cause long-term health problems, including cancer

CRY FOUL  Sharmin Akhter Sheila looks on with her child, while children wash and play in a pond of stagnant, chemical contaminated water in Hazaribagh. The former tannery worker has suffered health problems since leaving the job.


WRONG ROAD  Open tanks of tannery effluent run along Hazaribagh’s streets. Men fill up buckets with the toxic fluid to ferry it for use in another tannery. The wastewater that pours off tannery floors and into Hazaribagh’s open gutters and eventually Dhaka’s main river contains, among other substances, animal flesh, sulphuric acid, chromium and lead.


LEATHER LEGACY Leather engineer Victor Sarker had to give up his job at a tannery because of chronic health problems. “I was working 15 years at my production job but when I was getting sick, worse, then I went to the doctor and the doctor advised me ‘Victor, you should not come in contact with chemicals anymore, so leave this job’.”

TOXIC LOAD “Wet blue” hides, are stacked and carted by hand, leaving workers exposed to chemicals and manual handling risks.

CARRYING CHEMICALS Tanneries consume large amounts of highly toxic chemicals – some linked to skin disease, asthma and cancer.

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Material damage

As workers as young as 11 fall sick in tanneries in Bangladesh, the country’s government is standing by and doing nothing. Research by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals workers in many leather tanneries in the Hazaribagh neighbourhood of Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, become ill because of exposure to hazardous chemicals and are injured in horrific workplace accidents.

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Toxic tanneries: The health repercussions of Bangladesh’s Hazaribagh leather, Human Rights Watch, October 2012.

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