Health Hazards Faced by Handloom Weavers in Odisha Need Urgent Attention

The socio-economic conditions prevailing among Sambalpuri saree handloom weavers in Western Odisha are very poor. It has also been highlighted in the literature that most of the textile labourers are not aware of health hazards prevalent in the textile industry. 

The handloom sector provides direct and indirect employment to over 4.3 million people all over India (IBEF 2018). However, the social and physical well-being of the weavers have not been considered a priority in government policy. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are common to almost all occupations and sectors related to weaving, which leads to critical physical and economic consequences for workers, and their families. The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) identified musculoskeletal disorders as one of the most common work-related infirmities, emphasising that despite numerous parts of the body being involved, the back experiences most of the discomfort (Miranda et al 2011; Gómez-Galán et al 2017). According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA 2016), Department of Labour of the United States of America, musculoskeletal disorders account for great losses of work hours. As has been reported by researchers, a large number of American workers suffer from work-related MSDs in the back and shoulders, tendonitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome (Gómez-Galán 2017). Weaving is considered to be a highly labour-intensive task, with the labour cost accounting for up to an average of 65% of the production cost. Some of the MSDs that commonly occur are carpal-tunnel syndrome (CTS), tendonitis and lower-back pain, which are generally caused by repetitive motions, awkward and non-neutral postures, poor working conditions, among other things (Motamedzade and Moghimbeigi 2012). Parida and Ray (2012) have found that there is a correlation between the MSDs and occupation. Therefore, there is a critical need to assess the occupational risk factors among the unorganised sector, particularly the weaving industry in India. The postures of workers also need to be modified, and corrective measures need to be introduced to minimise the risk of musculoskeletal disorders in the long term.

Occupational Health Problems among Weavers

The weaving process starts with the tying and dying of threads, using acid and chrome. The thread is then carded and spun with the help of a cord machine. After this, the designs for the saree are drawn, and then hand-operated looms with foot pedals are used to weave the saree. This traditional process is very strenuous in terms of the time and effort it takes, which leads to many health problems among weavers. The postural strain caused by poorly designed looms is the major problem (Durlov et al 2014). Weavers are also exposed to many recognised risks for MSDs of the back and shoulder. 

Some of the health hazards associated with handloom workers also include weakened eyesight, early cataract, loss of vision, high or low blood pressure, heart problems, lung damage, filaria, arthritis, etc. It has been found that handloom weavers look much older than their actual age because of malnourishment, and continuous body movements in a constrained position. With time, the problems faced by weavers become severe because of a number of factors. Some of them are the prolonged nature of work, harmful raw materials, poor ventilation, and poorly-lit workspaces. Additionally, physical requirements such as the elevation of arms for long periods of time, static contractions, and repetitive movements that cause neck and shoulder problems also add to the health risks associated with weaving (Raju 2014; Blader et al 1991; Jensen et al 1993; Bernard 1997). Persistent coughs, expectoration, backaches, common colds, and joint pains were found to be the most frequent health complaints among adult carpet weavers. The risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome is also high among adult carpet weavers (Awan et al 2010). Looking at the prevalent problems, an extensive study of work-related MSD symptoms is required to establish a relationship between the physical exposure and its response (Burdorf 1992; Hagberg 1992; Winkel and Westgaard 1992).

Study Methodology and Data Collection

In the present study, data was collected from a village in Western Odisha. Around 1500 to 2000 weavers in the village are engaged in tie-and-dye work for about 10 hours/ day to manufacture Sambalpuri sarees. The production process is complex and is divided into several stages. Of this, the seven most important stages were selected for this study. Figure 1 shows how the postures assumed by the weavers in a number of ways.

Figure 1: Postures assumed by weavers (Images Courtesy: Author)

Posture 1: Bending and preparing the design 

Posture 2: Bending and designing in graph 

Posture 3: Tying the thread in frame 

Posture 4: Separating the thread from bundle 

Posture 5: Carding and spinning the thread 

Posture 6: Weaving saree in hand-operated looms with stretched hands 

Posture 7: Weaving saree in hand-operated loom with bent neck  

The average work experience of the workers was 35 to 40 years. For each stage, photos and videos of the workers were taken. Interviews were conducted with the help of a structured and standard questionnaire. Two questionnaires were used (given in Appendix I and II). The first questionnaire, the Nordic Musculoskeletal Questionnaire (NMQ) was developed by the Nordic Council of Ministers from a paper by Kuorinka et al  (1987). It was used to develop and test a standardised questionnaire methodology which allowed for a comparison of lower-back, neck and shoulder-related strain, and general complaints for use in epidemiological studies. The major occupational risk factors identified were as follows (Motamedzade and Moghimbeigi 2012):

  • Awkward postures
  • Repetitive tasks
  • Force
  • Contact stress
  • Poor lighting
  • Poor ambient conditions
  •  Poor air quality
  • Lack of work-rest regime

The second method that was used in the study was the Ovako Working Posture Assessment System (OWAS), which was formulated in Finland, specifically in the Ovako Oy company, a leading European producer of steel bars that was used to evaluate the workload in the repair process of smelting furnaces (Takala et al 2010). The method identifies the most habitual back postures in workers (4 postures), arms (3 postures), legs (7 postures) and weight of the load handled (3 categories) that counts up to 252 possible combinations. Therefore, each posture assumed by a worker was assigned a 4-digit code that depended on the classification within the previous postures for each part of the body and the load (Takala et al 2010). The researchers Polajnar and Caks (2003) concluded that workplaces previously designed for textile work result in the least number of strained postures by the workers while analysing two sewing workshops using OWAS and other methods. On the other hand, Durlov et al  (2014) used the OWAS questionnaire and tried to investigate lumbago among workers using handlooms in India. Their study confirmed that over half of the workers suffered lumbago with different degrees of severity.

Problems Faced By Weavers in Odisha 

The weavers assume a fixed posture while working on the loom. Because of this constraint and poor lighting, they develop an awkward posture that leads to severe backaches, and pain all over the body. The repetitive eye and arm movements required while placing the bobbin in the loom contribute towards eye strain and shoulder pain. With the help of the questionnaire, it was found that around 89% of the workers suffer from musculoskeletal pain in the neck, shoulder and elbows. Almost 76% of the weavers reported experiencing pain in the knees and ankles. Our study found that the lower back is the most affected region. Furthermore, it was found that the workspaces need to be ergonomically designed. There is a need to modify the components of the workstation that interact with the body parts of the weavers on a regular basis (Ghvamshahidi 1995; Barazani 1998). It was therefore recommended that an OWAS analysis be carried out to identify the critical postures so that ergonomic interventions may be suggested.  

The OWAS method was used to identify the frequency and time spent by weavers in a specific posture. Based on the OWAS study, corrective action was recommended, as mentioned in Table 1.

Table 1: Analysis of Selected Postures While Weaving
Posture OWAS Code Risk Action Needed Remarks
1 2, 1, 6, 1 Moderate Corrective action should be taken immediately Design of Work system
2 3, 3, 6, 1 High Corrective action should be taken immediately Design of frame and use of stool
3 2, 1, 2, 1 Moderate Corrective action should be taken immediately Design of a separator
4 2, 3, 6, 1 High Corrective action should be taken immediately Design of an automatic charka
5 2, 3, 6, 1 High Corrective action should be taken immediately Design of an automatic charka
6 2, 2, 1, 2 High Corrective action should be taken immediately Design of the work system
7 2, 2, 1, 2 High Corrective action should be taken immediately Design of the work system

From the analysis, it was found that the percentage of weavers with poor posture is an indicator of the occupational risk they face. Since this is a dynamic work condition, a time-weighted risk index should be calculated to evaluate the poor and critical postures. A number of suggestions and measures are discussed in this regard.

Periodic training programs are required to monitor the risk associated with each process. The fixed loom workstations, for example, need to be converted into flexible ones as per the anthropometric and physiological characteristics, so that the workers may move it to any place they want at any time. Rest periods should be defined shift-wise, and a proper work study and time study may be conducted to improve productivity. The cooperative societies, and handloom production centres should play a major role in reorganising the workers among each of the families involved in weaving, by providing proper training, and educating the workers in new techniques to avoid risks. They can also extend their help in forming self-help groups (SHGs) to help the weavers in terms of operational, administrative, and financial matters. 

As per the interviews with the weavers, it was observed that there is a great demand for Sambalpuri sarees across India, and abroad. But owing to a lack of exposure, they fail to compete in the textile market. With regard to this, the government should fund collaborations that aid trading and marketing functions of the weavers, especially given the government’s mission of promoting medium and small Entrepreneurs.  

The major problem that the weavers face is maintaining inventory, which can be solved by providing them with automated looms, wherein the postural strain may be taken care of and the productivity and efficiency may increase. In addition to this, the most effective way to look into the problem is to design a comprehensive Ergonomic Performance Indicator (EPI) developed by P K Ray and others in 2005, to determine the ergonomic status and maturity of the work system. Figure 2 shows the EPI model and its basic parameters. 

Figure 2: EPI Model ( Ray P K et al 2005)

With regard to the work efficiency, operator safety, and working conditions, the ergonomic restructuring of the weaving workspaces can be used to minimise the problems of MSDs among weavers in the handloom industry in India.


There is little regulation to prevent long-term health problems among workers. Even where the government has laid down regulations, they are rarely followed, which deteriorates the socio-economic conditions of the workers. It is critical to educate and spread awareness about MSDs that are work-related, particularly for the unorganised sector. Apart from changing the fortune of the handloom sector, the time has come to focus on this sector, and work towards improving the conditions of the weavers. 

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