Railway workers know about the health hazards

Kenya: Increasing awareness of work and health

Von Mary K. Waweru

It is gratifying to note that in Kenya the work of the Directorate of Occupational Health and Safety Services has started to bear fruit as far as the creation of awareness is concerned. The writer and her colleagues carried out a survey at the Kenya Railway Corporation workshops in the beginning of 1995 to gauge workers' awareness of the hazards found at their workplace. The results revealed that half of the workers interviewed were aware more than 60% of the hazards they were exposed to and were demanding suitable protection from the management.

The writer singled out the Kenya Railways Corporation for this survey because its workshops represent all the hazards found in industry. The workshops were established more than 80 years ago and are situated in Nairobi's industrial area. We toured 13 workshops, each of them performing a different specialized function as per corporate needs. Locomotives are repaired, and new locomotive parts are manufactured. The corporation is said to be self-sufficient in parts and service although both the machinery and the working methods are ancient. After a walk through in most of the workshops, my colleagues and I decided to interview the workers in what is called the wagon complex workshop. Thr 300 workers employed in the wagon complex are engaged in the following activities:

  • Repairing and cleaning of train brake equipment: Trichloroethane poured into open trays is used to degrease the parts. Workers use their bare hands to spread the solvent over the parts being degreased.
  • Repairing and refitting train wheels: This involves scraping metal wheels on machines, then heating them on an open furnace to soften the metal and facilitate easy refitting while hot. The scraping machine emits metal dust and particles. No facial protection or gloves were noticed. There was a crane for lifting the heavy metal wheels.
  • Riveting: Worn-out rivets from the wagon parts are removed and replaced. The rivets to be refitted into the machine are heated in a coal fire. When red-hot, the rivets are removed from the fire and fitted. Long metal tongs are used to remove the rivets, which while hot are hammered into metal plates. No eye or ear protectors were seen.
  • Welding: Both arc welding and gas welding are in use. Some workers were seen underneath the wagons, welding the areas on the wagons that needed welding; others were welding parts that had been removed from the wagons.

The wagons serviced in these four subsections of the wagon complex workshop are used for myriads of activities, including the transport of various chemicals, some possibly highly toxic, gas and other petroleum products. The dirt and dust collected by these wagons on their long meandering routes ended up in the workshop. Some workers wore overalls; others didn't. None had protective eye goggles.

The survey

We asked the workers to state the type of hazard they think they are exposed to and their own opinion on how these hazards could be eliminated. After assuring the workers that what they told us would be kept confidential, we interviewed 100 individual workers picked at random. Each of them had worked in the same shop for an average of 17 years. Among the 100 workers interviewed, 20% held supervisory positions. We rated their answers by comparing them against the hazards we had detected.

Nearly all the workers interviewed were aware of the obvious hazards, i.e. chemical dust, fumes and burns from welding, injury from falling objects, cut fingers from machinery, eye injury from flying metal fragments, arc welding and noise from the hammering. Most of them did not mention the biological hazards, the hazards arising from solvent fumes in the degreasing area or the ergonomic hazards. The supervisors were aware of more hazards in their work areas than ordinary workers. When asked for their opinions, all of the interviewees commented on the poor state or total lack of protective equipment. All of them reported asking the corporation to make provisions for adequate protection. Some of the interviewees had gone further, and demanding through their union to be medically examined for any ill effects they might have suffered due to their work environment. A few had misguided ideas, thinking that the provision of milk drinks would protect them from chemical hazards.

The results of this survey is far from conclusive. More work in this area is recommended. We are of the opinion that all workers employed in the corporation's workshops should have their health assessed for any ill effects. The assessment should be followed by health education, in order to further improve the workers' awareness of work and health.

*Mary K. Waweru is Member of the Directorate of Occupational Health and Safety Services in Nairobi, Kenya. The Article was first published in the African Newsletter on Occupational Health and Safety (No 1/1995).

Health hazards at the Kenya Railways Corporation’s workshops


  • solvent inhalation and absorption through the skin
  • skin irritation
  • metal fumes from heated metals and especially from welding


  • eye injury from metal fragments
  • injury from heavy falling objects and protruding parts of machinery
  • burns from hot metal sparks while welding


  • radiation from welding
  • impact noise
  • heat from burning coal and furnaces


  • infection from dirty wagons while welding
  • dust ingested while eating, as some of the workers eat at their work stations


  • work was being done haphazardly, without order
  • no sitting facilities even for jobs that would have been done more comfortably while sitting


  • most of the workers worried about their state of health and blamed the corporation for not providing them with the appropriate protection