With a rapidly burgeoning urban landscape despite a slew of issues like lack of planning, congestion and astronomical land prices, Dhaka is a metropolis that seemingly finds ways to survive, somehow. The same can't be said for the people who are tasked with building it—according to Occupational Safety, Health, and Environment (OSHE), 1,196 construction workers lost their lives between 2005 and 2016, with 147 worker deaths in 2016 alone. With an average of 100 construction workers dying every year, questions have been raised of the cost of human lives in the expansion and construction of Dhaka city.
In a roundtable jointly organised by The Daily Star and Sheltech on “Ensuring construction safety in Bangladesh” on August 19, 2017, experts from the construction and building development sector, as well as civil engineers and labour leaders weighed in on how the issue of construction safety should be tackled.
Mikail Shipar, former secretary, labour ministry, pointed out how the focus on worker safety in construction and other sectors has always been overshadowed by the RMG industry.
“Since the Labour Act only covers the formal sector, it does not fully include the safety of construction workers. DIFE has their hands full with the garments sector, but it should look towards the construction industry as well. In the garments sector, due to the pressure from international buyers the company owners are now abiding by the same safety rules, which the ministry could not make them follow for years. Similar type of pressure is needed in the construction sector from the consumers. However, in the end, the main responsibility for ensuring safety of the workers lies on the owner,” he said at the roundtable last year.
In the past year, not a lot has changed. The number of deaths went up to 179 in 2017, and with a lack of policy initiative from the government, it's highly likely that construction related worker deaths will continue to rise, as the trend shows.
There's a significant push from the private sector though. Developers like Sheltech, RANCON and BTI are pushing for change and taking ownership of their workers' safety.
“Sheltech has always placed a strong emphasis on code-compliant, safe and quality construction. We have two separate teams in this regard, one for checking construction quality and the other for ensuring 100 percent safety compliance on all sites. Providing a full range of personal protection equipment (PPE), regular and repeated safety trainings, feedback from workers and contractors and an incentive policy for maintaining safety, are the four key ways in which Sheltech has achieved such a high level of safety on our sites,” says Samiya Seraj, director, Sheltech Ltd.
Code compliance is mandated at a policy level abroad, but locally, construction site compliance is regarded loosely as a set of instructions that developers can choose to not follow on a whim. However, the larger, more established developers take the issue of compliance quite seriously and are trying their best to ensure worker safety at these sites.
“At construction phase, we put our best effort in improvising its quality along with the working standards and environment. Our team members are our biggest assets and in order to ensure their safety, strict Safety, Health and Environment policies have been implemented such as daily toolbox meetings, personal protection gear, incident reporting and specific work permits for different skills,” says Md Shahdat, head of construction, Rangs Properties.
Automation and a move to reducing labour-dependency is another avenue that can be explored in the pursuit of safer construction sites. While a majority of the construction sites in the city largely involve high levels of manual labour, companies like Rangs Properties are trying to introduce more automation.
“Automation reduces dependency on manual labour, resulting in efficient production
in terms of time, cost and quality. It will reduce the frequency of accidents that may occur at site due to direct involvement of labour as well,” Shahdat says.
Proper health and safety training as well as detailed briefings are a necessary step before work begins.
“Before the start of work at each site, each group is briefed by our site engineers on the hazards associated with their particular task that day, and the PPE they must wear. These PPE's are then given to them from Sheltech before they start work. Surprise visits by our safety team ensures that the workers practice safe construction and are using the PPE properly. Any violations that are found during this time are input into our safety software to ensure these points are covered in the next day's safety training,” says Samiya Seraj.
There's a need for comprehensive training and safety policy enforcement at a national level as opposed to just private initiatives. While companies like Sheltech are invested in construction safety and provide financial incentives to the contractors and teams with the safest practices, there are a multitude of small developers who try to cut costs by procuring sub-standard safety gear, employing lesser-trained contractors and ignoring safety guidelines.
While the issue of compliance remains, private sector parties see improvements. “The biggest improvement that I see this year is an increased awareness in society about construction safety. Clients are always interested in learning more about Sheltech's construction safety programme, and our long-time contractors are more accepting of the strict safety policies we put on site,” says Samiya.