Build­ing in­dus­try boom­ing, but not so work­ers' safety

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - PARLIAMENT/NEWS - By San­dun Jayawar­dana

Out­dated leg­is­la­tion, short­age of qual­i­fied in­spec­tion of­fi­cers and a lethar­gic at­ti­tude to­wards oc­cu­pa­tional health and safety are among the ma­jor ob­sta­cles in avert­ing ac­ci­dents at con­struc­tion sites.

Safety is­sues in the con­struc­tion sec­tor have come in for par­tic­u­lar fo­cus as it is one of the fastest grow­ing in­dus­tries in the coun­try and also em­ploys a large num­ber of work­ers. It is also one of the most haz­ardous in­dus­tries, with work­ers em­ployed in often dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous en­vi­ron­ments. While ac­ci­dents are a ma­jor threat, dis­eases such as dengue too have be­come a health hazard at con­struc­tion sites as there are plenty of ar­eas where water can col­lect.

Oc­cu­pa­tional health and safety in the coun­try is gov­erned by the Fac­to­ries Or­di­nance Act No.45 of 1942 which was pro­mul­gated from Jan­uary 1, 1950. The or­di­nance, which has been amended from time to time, also cov­ers the con­struc­tion in­dus­try. Nev­er­the­less, key reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing oc­cu­pa­tional safety and health have still not come into force, of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged.

The Fac­to­ries Or­di­nance has 131 chap­ters and makes pro­vi­sions for the safety, health and wel­fare of work­ers in ‘fac­to­ries.’ Yet, the def­i­ni­tion of what con­sti­tutes a ‘fac­tory’ un­der the or­di­nance is out­dated and as such, does not cover all work­places. Au­thor­i­ties hope to ad­dress short­com­ings in the Fac­to­ries Or­di­nance through the pro­posed Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety, Health and Wel­fare Act, which would change the def­i­ni­tion of ‘fac­tory’ to that of a ‘work­place.’ This leg­is­la­tion how­ever, has been pend­ing for more than 10 years and is yet to be fi­nalised.

A 2016 study by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO) Col­lab­o­rat­ing Cen­tre for Train­ing and Re­search in Oc­cu­pa­tional Health on oc­cu­pa­tional health and safety in Sri Lanka, notes that even the en­force­ment of ex­ist­ing leg­is­la­tion has not been sat­is­fac­tory due to var­i­ous con­straints. It notes that many small and medium sized in­dus­tries do not pay due at­ten­tion to oc­cu­pa­tional safety.

There is a clear in­ter-re­la­tion­ship be­tween work and health, noted Dr Champika Amaras­inghe, Di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health (NIOSH). “If the worker is healthy, the work can be per­formed 100% ef­fec­tively and pro­duc­tively. If the work­place is not healthy, work­ers will be af­fected. They may get sick or fall prey to ac­ci­dents. The fact is that all oc­cu­pa­tional dis­eases and ac­ci­dents can be pre­vented,” she em­pha­sised.

The NIOSH is a pol­icy-mak­ing body un­der the Depart­ment of Labour and its man­date is to cre­ate aware­ness, con­duct train­ing and carry out re­search on oc­cu­pa­tional health and safety. One of the main chal­lenges is that the sub­ject is not be­ing taken as a se­ri­ous is­sue across the board in al­most all in­dus­tries, Dr Amaras­inghe ob­served.

En­force­ment of the Fac­to­ries Or­di­nance is vested with of­fi­cers of the In­dus­trial Safety Di­vi­sion (ISD) of the Depart­ment of Labour. Nearly 30,000 have reg­is­tered so far, but the di­vi­sion es­ti­mates that a far big­ger num­ber falls un­der the cur­rent ‘fac­to­ries’ def­i­ni­tion.

The ISD, how­ever, is strug­gling to do reg­u­lar in­spec­tions of even the reg­is­tered places due to a lack of qual­i­fied fac­tory in­spec­tion engi­neers. The po­si­tion re­quires highly qual­i­fied in­di­vid­u­als with a min­i­mum qual­i­fi­ca­tion of a Bach­e­lor’s De­gree in En­gi­neer­ing. Cur­rently, only about 25 such engi­neers work at the di­vi­sion, spread across 10 Dis­trict Engi­neers of­fices is­land-wide. The ap­proved cadre for fac­tory in­spect­ing engi­neers is still only 37, but given that the num­ber of reg­is­tra­tions are in­creas­ing ev­ery year, of­fi­cials said they would need around 100 engi­neers to do a thor­ough job.

De­spite the short­age of per­son­nel, the ISD car­ries out its work to the best of its abil­ity. The di­vi­sion files le­gal ac­tion re­gard­ing se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions of oc­cu­pa­tional health and safety. Nearly 30 such cases against var­i­ous com­pa­nies are cur­rently be­fore courts. The cases have been filed over fail­ure to re­port ac­ci­dents and fail­ure to en­sure a safe place of em­ploy­ment for work­ers, said Lak­sh­man Jansz, Com­mis­sioner of Labour (In­dus­trial Safety) & Chief Fac­tory In­spect­ing En­gi­neer/ Add. Com­mis­sioner Gen­eral of Labour- Enginer­ing (Act.).

En­cour­ag­ingly though, there is an in­crease in ac­ci­dent re­port­ing due to aware­ness cam­paigns at con­struc­tion sites, he re­vealed.

Ma­jor con­trac­tors are also tak­ing mea­sures to fol­low in­dus­try ‘best prac­tices’ by ad­her­ing to the Fac­to­ries Or­di­nance and even go­ing be­yond it on oc­ca­sion to pre­vent ac­ci­dents at con­struc­tion sites, of­fi­cials stressed. These in­clude mak­ing Per­sonal Pro­tec­tion Equip­ment (PPE) manda­tory for all em­ploy­ees, clearly des­ig­nat­ing and dis­play­ing emer­gency assem­bly points, as well as in­stal­ing handrails, safety net­ting and other bar­ri­ers to pre­vent fall­ing haz­ards.

Yet, in gen­eral terms, there is still a lack­lus­ter at­ti­tude to­wards safety that needs to change ur­gently, said E. Abeysiri­war­dena, Spe­cial­ist Fac­tory In­spec­tion En­gi­neer at the ISD. He ob­served that many work­ers at con­struc­tion sites in ur­ban cen­ters are from ru­ral ar­eas. A con­sid­er­able num­ber have only worked in sin­gle storey build­ings. No mat­ter how hard com­pa­nies try, it is dif­fi­cult to con­vince these per­sons, who have got used to work­ing with­out any safety equip­ment, to wear them con­tin­u­ously while work­ing, he lamented. “They think an ac­ci­dent will not hap­pen to them. They keep on think­ing that un­til it does.”

Some con­trac­tors too are guilty of com­pro­mis­ing on safety by cut­ting down the amount of funds they spend on safety mea­sures. They fail to re­al­ize that en­sur­ing a safe work­ing en­vi­ron­ment for work­ers ben­e­fits the con­trac­tor in turn, Mr. Abeysiri­war­dena said, adding, “We need a com­plete change of at­ti­tude to­wards safety among work­ers and em­ploy­ers. The fo­cus should be on pre­vent­ing work­place ac­ci­dents."

Those in the in­dus­try too be­lieve that an at­ti­tude change is needed. Athula Galagoda, Chair­man of the Na­tional Con­struc­tion As­so­ci­a­tion of Sri Lanka, stated that younger work­ers were more re­cep­tive to wear­ing Per­sonal Pro­tec­tion Equip­ment (PPE). The older ones aew more dif­fi­cult to per­suade. “They have been work­ing in the in­dus­try for years with­out them and so balk at the idea of be­ing forced to wear such gear,” he re­marked.

He urged au­thor­i­ties to re­duce the cus­toms du­ties on PPEs and hi-tech tools that come with en­hanced safety mea­sures, point­ing out that if the items were cheaper, it would en­cour­age con­trac­tors to in­vest in them.

Mr Galagoda though, said, ef­forts to min­imise con­struc­tion in­dus­try ac­ci­dents will only be fully suc­cess­ful if oc­cu­pa­tional health and safety mea­sures are made com­pul­sory for all by law.

Some of the safety mea­sures that should be ad­hered to at con­struc­tion sites. Pix by Ishanka Su­ni­mal

E.Abeysiri­war­dena

Lak­sh­man Jansz

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