Kenyans risk health to earn living in the informal sector

For low wage blue-collar workers, protection from occupational hazards and ensuring health is last on their mind

Andrew Wasike   | 06.05.2021
Kenyans risk health to earn living in the informal sector


As the world observes Occupational Safety and Health Week on May 4-10, nearly 14 million people in the East African country of Kenya risk their lives by working under extreme conditions

The informal businesses, amounting to 83.4% of all jobs are referred to as Jua Kali (hot sun) industry to symbolize working conditions that require a person to work under the tropical sun without any shelter.

The workers in this industry are brazenly violating health protocols necessary for the industries and are exposed to toxic solvents, chemicals, acids, and heavy metals such as mercury and lead in absence of proper protective equipment.

At a light-industry estate in the capital Nairobi Juta Mutua who works as a welder lacks protective equipment to save his eyes from the sparks.

“For me, I don’t have protective glasses for my eyes,” he said. Instead of a proper shield, he holds a piece of broken glasses to partially shield his eyes for over the past four years, which has been now affecting his health.

“First it was with breathing complications. I am now coughing a lot and sometimes it is serious,” he said.

He along with many people around him is constantly breathing hot metal fumes.

“I have never seen anyone wearing a helmet to protect us from the fumes. I have seen people with special goggles but not for the fumes. Also complaining about something like this would just put a label on you as a weak person who is not serious about work,” he said.

For Mutua and his friends, earning a living is more important rather seeking protective gear to protect them from occupational hazards.

Due to light sensitivity, he is suffering from sharp eye pains. Every day he finishes work with red eyes, choked windpipe. He just washes his eyes and returns home to live for another day.

The use of uninsulated or worn-out cables has been found the main source of 83% of cases of electricity short-circuits which have led to fire and deaths.

Exposure to toxic paints

Michael Karegu a spray painter currently panting coffins at a small industrial unit.

“We expose ourselves to toxic paint every day with no protection, not by choice but there is nothing we can do. Those things [protective gear] are very expensive and they do not last that long,” he said.

The industry owner or foreman will fire you if you start demanding protection. I have breathing complications but doctors gave me medication and advise me to stop painting. But I can’t. Stopping will be a death sentence for my family,” he said.

According to a study conducted by International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and the Centre for Environment Justice and Development (CEJAD), nearly 71% of all paints in the East African country contain toxic levels of lead.

According to Misia Kandenyi, professor at the Maasai Mara University in Kenya, the Jua Kali sector is not only a backbone of the country’s economy but has been listed in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as a tool to reduce poverty.

“Despite its importance, attention to the occupational health and safety management in the sector has not been given much attention,” she said.

Like the big industries, he said these small-scale units should also be forced to take appropriate measures to save thousands of lives that are at risk every day.

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