New Delhi: Eight thousand miles from Manhattan, barefoot, shirtless, whip-thin men rippled with muscle were forging prosaic pieces of the urban jigsaw puzzle: manhole covers. Seemingly impervious to the heat from the metal, the workers at one of West Bengal’s many foundries relied on strength and bare hands rather than machinery.

Safety precautions were barely in evidence; just a few pairs of goggles were seen in use on a recent visit. The foundry, Shakti Industries in Howrah, produces manhole covers for Con Edison and New York City’s department ofenvironmental protection as well as for departments in New Orleans and Syracuse, New York.

Workers pour molten metal from their ladles into some of the many molds for manhole covers that line a foundry’s factory floor, in Howrah, West Bengal, 1 Sept 2007. Seemingly impervious to the searing heat from the molten metal, the workers at one of West Bengal’s many foundries rely on strength and bare hands rather than machinery. (J. Adam Huggins/The New York Times)

That’s what attracted the interest of a photographer who often works for The New York Times—images that practically radiate heat and illustrate where New York’s manhole covers are born.

When officials at Con Edison—which buys a quarter of its manhole covers, roughly 2,750 a year, from India—were shown the pictures, they said they were surprised.

“We were disturbed by the photos," said Michael S. Clendenin, director of media relations with Con Edison. “We take worker safety very seriously," he said.

The utility said it was rewriting international contracts to include safety requirements. Contracts will now require overseas manufacturers to “take appropriate actions to provide a safe and healthy workplace," and to follow local and federal guidelines in India, Clendenin said.

At Shakti, manhole covers and other castings were scattered across the dusty yard. Inside, men wearing sandals and shorts carried coke and ore in baskets on their heads upstairs to the furnace feeding room.

On the ground floor, other men, often shoeless and stripped to the waist, waited with giant ladles, ready to catch the molten metal that came pouring out of the furnace. The temperature outside the factory yard was more than 100°F during a September visit.

Several feet from where the metal was being poured, the area felt like an oven, and the workers were slick with sweat.

Often, sparks flew from the pots of molten metal. In one instance they ignited a worker’s lungi, a skirt-like cloth wrap. He quickly doused the flames by rubbing the burning part of the cloth against the rest of it with his hand, then continued to cart the metal to a nearby mold. Once the metal solidified and cooled, workers removed the manhole cover casting from the mold, and then ground and polished the rough edges. Finally, the men stacked the covers and bolted them together for shipping.

“We can’t maintain the luxury of Europe and the United States, with all the boots and all that," said Sunil Modi, director of Shakti Industries. He said, however, that the foundry never has accidents. He was concerned about the attention, afraid that contracts would be pulled and jobs lost.

New York City’s department of environmental protection gets most of sewer manhole covers from India. When asked in an email about the sourcing of covers, Mark Daly, director of communications for New York’s department of citywide administrative services, said state law requires the city to buy the lowest priced products available. The law forbids the city from excluding firms based on where a product is manufactured.

Municipalities and utility companies often buy manhole covers through middlemen; New York City buys the sewer covers through a company in Flushing, Queens.

Con Edison said it doesn’t plan to cancel its contracts with Shakti after seeing the photographs, though it has been phasing out Indian-made covers because of design changes. Manhole covers manufactured in India can be anywhere from 20-60% cheaper than those made in the US, said Alfred Spada, the editor and publisher of Modern Casting magazine and the spokesman for the American Foundry Society. Workers at Indian foundries are paid the equivalent of a few dollars a day, while in the US, workers earn about $25 (Rs990) an hour.

The men making New York City’s manhole covers seemed proud of their work and pleased to be photographed doing it. The production manager at the Shakti Industries factory, A. Ahmed, was enthusiastic about the photographer’s visit, and gave a full tour of the facilities, stopping to measure the temperature of the molten metal—some 1,400°C, or about 2,552°F.

India’s 1948 Factory Safety Act addresses cleanliness, ventilation, waste treatment, overtime pay and fresh drinking water, but the only protective gear it specifies is safety goggles. Modi said his factory follows basic safety regulations and that workers should not be barefoot. “It must have been a very hot day" when the photos were taken, he said.

Some labour activists in India say injuries are far higher than what figures show. “Many accidents are not being reported," said H. Mahadevan, deputy general secretary for the All India Trade Union Congress.

Safety, overall, is “not taken as a serious concern by employers or trade unions," Mahadevan added.

A.K. Anand, the director of the Institute of Indian Foundrymen in New Delhi, a trade association, said that foundry workers were “not supposed to be working barefoot," but could not answer questions about what safety equipment they should be wearing.

At the Shakti Industries foundry, “there are no accidents, never ever. Period," Modi said. “By God’s will, it’s all fine."