Contributed by Kamarajan M- Head of Education, British Safety Council India
India’s infrastructure and construction sector are crucial to India’s economic ecosystem. With the development of world-class facilities like roads, waterways, railways, airports, ports, and residential, offices, retail, hotels, and leisure parks across the country, the public and private sectors are playing a crucial role in India’s growth story. India is poised to become the world’s third-largest construction market with the sector expected to reach $1.4 Tn by 2025.
The construction sector is one of India’s biggest job providers. However, it is also known to be among the most hazardous sectors. The number of fatalities reported per day is very high. A report by researchers at the National Institute of Technology Surat in 2016, estimated that the construction industry accounts for around a quarter of all workplace accident fatalities in India. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, in a study in 2019, found that falls, electrocutions, and collapsing walls and scaffolding at construction sites are the major causes of work-related deaths in the construction industry.
In the absence of proper safety standards, protocols, and practices in most of the medium and small construction companies, the staggering numbers are not surprising. With proper safety measures in place, and the top management of these companies giving equal importance to health and safety of the workmen, as they do for the progress of work, these deaths can be prevented. India could learn valuable lessons from developed countries, where fatalities are significantly lower and where the health and safety record of the construction industry has significantly improved in recent years due to their matured health and safety management system.
In the UK, for example, employers are legally bound to assess the risks to their workers’ health and safety. If the risks are significant then the employer must take steps to remove or reduce them to a reasonably practical level. The regulations also cover the management of risks to workers’ health, safety, and welfare during construction work.
The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) makes construction clients, designers, and contractors responsible for work to be carried out in a way that ensures the health and safety of workers and the public. Laws such as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2012 are there to protect employees from the risk of exposure to hazardous substances, such as dust, vapour, fumes, and gases.
Most importantly companies that fail to comply with health and safety laws face the risk of criminal prosecution and financial penalties. In 2017-2018, £19m in fines were imposed on British construction companies for breaching safety protocols.
In India however, in some of the unorganized sectors, employers are not legally obliged to report work-related accidents, injuries, and cases of ill health to the enforcing authorities. Also, many incidents, like deaths on construction sites are not officially reported, mainly due to the fact that enforcement authority for the Building & Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Rules is not very well geared up for capturing this data, unlike the enforcement authority for Factories Rules, where accurate data is available.
The official statistics for work-related fatalities, injuries, and cases of ill health usually don’t give a clear picture of the scale of the problem.
The health and safety of migrant workers should be made a priority
In India, however, for many employers in the construction sector, the health and safety of workers become a priority only after serious accidents, which is also short-lived and after some times, it becomes business-as-usual. The workforce mostly comprises rural workers who migrate to towns and cities in search of work due to factors like a lack of employment opportunities in villages or farming and poverty. Unfortunately, at the construction sites in the cities, they face unsafe and unhealthy working and living conditions. Poor accommodation, food and sanitation, unsafe working practices, and inadequate healthcare provision are common.
Training is another area that the construction industry in India needs serious improvement. Although Workers receive many manhours of unstructured information on health and safety, they are poorly trained in an organized manner, based on a comprehensive gap analysis between the desired level of competence and their actual level of competence. Because of their temporary status (average retention of workmen in typical construction project is only 3 to 6 months), contractors don’t feel the need to invest their resources in training or health and safety of the workmen.
Construction workers are also at risk of developing serious health conditions. Musculoskeletal disorders (like back injuries), caused by manually lifting heavy loads, and respiratory ailments, such as silicosis from exposure to dust while cutting and grinding up stones, are some of them. There is a general lack of awareness among the public, workers, and employers in India about serious work-related health problems like these.
What should be done to improve construction safety in 2023
Frequent and rigorous safety inspections of construction sites by enforcement authorities are needed to prevent fatal and serious accidents. Health and safety standards will receive a quantum jump, when the project managers are under threat of a visit by statutory authority and possibility of serious fines and prosecutions, if they find poor health and safety conditions.
Training workers to make them aware of the potential dangers they face and how to avoid them is one way to improve health and safety. For example, implementing training programmes that teach roofers and structural riggers to work safely at height and handle equipment safely when erecting steel-framed buildings and structures.
Construction companies should put in place safety practices like dynamic risk assessment. This is a continuous process that will help identify hazards and assess risk. Companies can monitor and review hazards during the project and take action to eliminate risks wherever possible.
Toolbox talks - informal meetings with construction managers and workers to brief and discuss hazards, risks, and safety procedures, is an effective way to ensure safety during construction projects, which should be given to all employees every day.
The construction industry should also consider using artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and drones to help control risks to workers’ health and safety. AI in construction can help the industry overcome some of the toughest challenges, including safety concerns, labour shortages, and cost, time, and schedule overruns. Some of the major construction companies have made serious headway in using these emerging technologies in many functions within construction project, including health and safety management. Robotic plastering and painting is already being tested in some of the projects and 3D printing of simple concrete structures is in the R&D stage. All these developments are very promising and the health and safety management in the next 3 to 5 years is going to get major overhaul.
Construction companies should consider implementing health and safety culture change programmes. By improving their organisational culture and increasing staff engagement with health and safety arrangements, companies can make a positive difference.
In conclusion, India should push for a culture change in 2023 regarding the way that risks to workers’ health, safety, and wellbeing are managed, including during construction work.
Although legislation is important in helping to improve the overall health and safety posture of an organisation, the project leaders in the construction sector should take the lead in championing the need for a good health and safety culture at every level of an organisation.