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Safety of construction workers after Covid-19 crisis

  • Published at 02:05 pm June 1st, 2020
Safety of construction workers after Covid-19 crisis

Regardless of reasons, there is a great negative practice in the usage of personal protective equipment

The risks that lie in front of us are often overlooked and overshadowed by our need to survive and our faux-confidence in self that no harm will come to us.Such an attitude, coupled with inadequate safety measures, tend to be the catalyst of disasters that could and should have been easily averted. And just as Bran Stark from the famed Game of Thrones series fell from high atop a tower due to outside interference despite his surefootedness, accidents in construction sites can easily occur regardless of a worker’s mastery of his craft or even gymnast-level balance.

The topic of workplace safety, particularly for those working as labourers, often comes up in discussions in media and roundtable meetings. Yet, there has been very little improvement about this matter in the last few years. Industrial disasters and factory collapses like that of Rana Plaza has had significant headway into improving several building safety precautions and such, but the same can hardly be said about mitigating construction hazards.

Every year, over a hundred construction workers perish — with 134 deaths reported in 2019 — according to official reports, but the actual figure is estimated to be much higher.Exposure to toxins, falling from great heights, accidental dismemberment and other numerous hazards surround a construction site. And now, the novel coronavirus has been added to that list, which has the capacity to be deadlier than the rest.

The infectious properties of the coronavirus and its corresponding disease, Covid-19, make it a very potent agent of destruction and chaos. A single infected person can infect hundreds of others in a short period— as over a thousand individuals are reported to be infected every day —and the disease itself can cause significant respiratory problems and death. Furthermore, there is still no sign of the rate of transmission slowing down anytime soon.

So, as the economy begins to reopen little by little and people return to their workplaces, adequate safety measures must be adopted at all levels of work, and that means ensuring the safety of the workforce as well.But if history is anything to go by, this will hardly be the case moving forward.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), it is estimated that over eight million workers in Bangladesh suffer injuries in the workplace every year. Unfortunately, there is no accurate data that corresponds to the number of accidents in construction sites each year. Most of the injuries in construction sites often go unreported unless fatal in nature.Almost all of the accidents are due to a lack of safety equipment and a lax attitude towards them where, either the contractor refuses to provide ample safety gear in trying to reduce cost or ignorance and negligence about safety come into play.

Regardless of reasons, there is a great negative practice in the usage of personal protective equipment or PPE such as safety harnesses, goggles and gloves in construction sites with only the major developers often seen disbursing such gear to labourers. Many of the independent and small construction projects forego its usage altogether. As a result, encouraging and motivating people to ensure the safety of construction workers in light of Covid-19 is going to be a monumental task.

After all, many individuals in our society are still defying health and safety guidelines in their daily lives such as those of social distancing and wearing masks.But this begs the questions, if the people, the contractors, the developers and the workers themselves were actually ready to follow guidelines, how would those guidelines and safety measures look like?

For starters, we can look to other nations who have started to reopen their economy and construction activity — see what sort of measures they are planning or taking to ensure the utmost worker safety from the coronavirus. We can begin by taking a look at Singapore, where a significant volume of Bangladeshi migrants works in the construction sector as labourers. The country plans on resuming construction activities on a larger scale from June 1 with strict testing and separation measures in place for workers.

The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) of the island nation has given the directive to test foreign workers routinely every two weeks and when they return to work as well as track the daily health status of the workers. In addition, workers will be housed in separate houses based on projects and no interaction between teams will be permitted.

While such measures might seem aggressive to some, they are also necessary in order for the workers’ safety and continued construction activity. But such measures might also be impossible for a developing nation such as Bangladesh since the cost of housing workers for a prolonged period of time and implementing safety measures would add to the growing expenditure of a project — which will ultimately fall on the shoulders of consumers. Yet, for a labour-intensive sector such as construction, workers’ safety from the coronavirus needs to be assured to regain the sector's former pace.

At the forefront of this approach, to ensure the safety of workers in construction, should be effective communication. The prevailing perception regarding safety needs an immediate change. If workers have access to PPE, they need to understand how to use them and why they should put their safety first — a“safety culture”needs to be fostered. Furthermore, a regulatory and monitoring body is needed.

If necessary, an occupational safety board needs to be set up and empowered so that organizations dealing with construction activity follow suit on the recommended safety measures. Access to safety equipment, proper practice, adequate and regular testing — these will be their domain.

However, can that truly happen in Bangladesh? Safety is the right of every employee and worker. But in Bangladesh, labour rights, even though it exists on pen and paper, is rarely honoured or maintained. Fear of losing the job, fear of reprisal, conflict and retaliation prevent many informed and aware workers of the community from speaking up. As a result, the safety standards for workers have not been able to keep pace with the growth of the construction sector that was achieved in the last 10-15 years.

But this needs to change, especially in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is something far more dangerous than many employees, workers or labourers have had to deal with. It can spread quickly and harm severely, regardless of how confident or surefooted one feels.

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