It’s a sight that’s familiar across any city. Construction workers in tattered clothes carrying pans of cement or other construction material on their heads, which are protected by nothing more than a rolled up piece of cloth. Or masons working on a rickety wooden scaffolding, with a cloth or cap on their heads if they are lucky.
The problem is not that there are no safety regulations in place. The issue is that they are ignored than followed, either willingly, or out of ignorance.
The situation today
Risks associated with the construction industry include injuries from falls, from falling or moving objects, transportation related risks, exposure to hazardous materials and electrical risks. The construction industry has the highest ratio of injuries and fatalities when compared to other industries like manufacturing. The reasons for this are many, starting with the nature of working conditions, to the lack of safety training, and non-observance of health, safety, security and environment (HSSE) regulations.
The ones closest to the ground reality and charged with supervising the safety on site are the vendors and contractors. However, a fatal combination of lack of competency and lack of commitment to making things better are work against the enforcement of HSSE regulations. Contractors and vendors are also hesitant to invest in safety equipment due to cost reasons.
An oft-ignored area is in the storage of materials. HSSE norms like ventilation requirements in the case of volatile compounds, or stacking height of cement bags etc. are observed more in the breach than compliance. A lack of co-ordination and team effort between the management, engineers, supervisors and workers puts stumbling blocks in the way of a planned and seamless adoption of HSSE systems. By integrating HSSE demands right from the design stage all the way through to planning and construction, compliance can be a smoother process.
Coming to the workers, construction projects are temporary in nature and workers are engaged only for the duration of the project. Also, a large part of the labour force are agricultural labourers who go back to the farms during the sowing or harvesting season. Therefore, contractors are unwilling to invest time, effort and money into safety training or inductions.
Building a safer future
The call for improved safety and a more stringent enforcement of HSSE norms in the construction industry has been rising steadily over time. A series of front-page making accidents on high-profile projects like flyovers and bridges has brought the issue to the fore. Many initiatives are being taken now improve the situation, including legislation and stricter enforcement of HSSE norms in construction.
Building of competency among contractors and vendors is one of the first steps towards a safer construction environment. Better training and education about aspects of health, safety and environmental hazards is imperative across all levels. From safety inductions for workers before entering a site, to having safety officers and emergency aid on site, HSSE norms have to be followed in letter and spirit.
The establishment of engineering controls can go a long way in reducing risks and improving safety on site. These controls are permanent and less likely to fail. What’s more, they are less prone to human error and therefore enhance adherence to HSSE standards. In addition, accountability at every level and across functions is vital for the establishment and adherence to safety norms.
The management’s commitment is crucial for the standards to be laid down and followed. In many situations, companies do not interfere once the project is handed over to the contractor. However, in this age of transparency and disclosure, companies are realising that their reputation is affected by their partners and associates as well. This can lead to more due diligence from managements vis a vis contractors and vendors. The industry must come together to set a whole framework in place to help frame policies, educate and train stakeholders, and oversee the compliance to rules and regulations. An exercise by qualified professionals to identify controls for reducing hazards in all aspects of construction has to be undertaken before rigorous rules and regulations are framed and codified. This has to be an on-going process, with the rules and regulations being updated and upgraded to keep them relevant and contemporary. Enhanced safety and security can only become a reality when the industry works together as a whole to make it a priority and push for mandatory compliance to health, safety, security and environment norms.
— Anshul Jain is CEO, DTZ-India