Sumitra DebRoy

“Rotten, unclaimed human bodies piled on top of each other for months with maggots and rats feeding on them“… This is how a mortuary attendant described his workplace in an assessment report on hazard exposures at four of the city’s biggest hospitals.The report, to be presented to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), highlighted how inhuman working conditions at staterun post-mortem centres are exposing staff to diseases like tuberculosis.

Seventy-nine health workers from mortuaries at Bhagwati hospital in Borivli, JJ in Byculla, Cooper in Juhu and Rajawadi in Ghatkopar have narrated their daily struggle to work in conditions where, at every step, they risk contracting biological hazards like blood-borne viruses and other infections, including HIV , hepatitis and TB.The workers have revealed how the four centres put together have over 200 unidentified bodies, which are in various stages of decomposi tion. Many corpses lie unwrapped on the floors as storage units have run out of space.

The workers are often forced to handle these bodies (many have fluids and blood oozing out) without gloves, masks, boots and full body protective gear. The report, a joint initiative by the trade union, Sarva Shramik Sangh, and Jan Arogya Abhiyan (JSA), is aimed at forcing the state to improve working conditions of grade IV staffers.The report spoke about how mortuary assistants have no access to clean drinking water, uniforms, protective gear or even basic things like soaps or sanitizers.

“There is no facility for these workers to change or ta ke a bath after they have handled a body . Their work also involves cutting open a body and suturing it up,“ said Milind Ranade, secretary , Sarva Shramik Sangh. A mortuary assistant told TOI they are entitled to only five pair of gloves every month, while body-cutters get up to 10 pairs. At certain centres, such as Rajawadi and Bhagwati, over15 autopsies are performed on any given day . “We are expected to reuse the gloves, which puts us at a very high risk of contracting infections,“ he said.

Ranade added that several workers have died of TB over the years but no records have been maintained. A 27-yearold staffer is undergoing treatment for TB, while fighting with the state for dues, withheld due to absence from work during treatment. Many have been forced to resort to alcoholism or substance abuse to “deaden their senses“, a worker said.

Jan Arogya Abhyan state co-convenor Dr Abhijit More said, “The survey was made to look into issues of violation of people’s rights to healthy working conditions.“ It will be presented at a public hearing of NHRC on January 6 and 7.