A brief seminar on construction safety, last week, brought to the fore a lot of issues that are not addressed even with an occupational and health safety guideline.

Participants, mostly from the construction sector and relevant authorities, are arguing that the guidelines has a lot of loopholes and that implementing it had been difficult.  The guideline was adopted in 2012, seven years ago. There were two rounds of such seminars in the past to understand the importance of safety and health in the construction sector.

The construction sector has grown since the last seminar. Similar issues were raised in the past. We are still learning safety rules simply by accidents. Some of the provisions in the guideline are not complicated. For instance, wearing safety gears like closed shoes or hard hats are not difficult to follow.

Safety is for the workers, yet we cannot convince the workers to protect themselves. It shows the lack of seriousness. Not following safety measures comes with a cost. Accidents, some fatal, cost the contractor, the government and above all, an accident can cost the life of the worker.

Labour and human resources ministry records show that 42 workplace accidents were recorded last year.  Of the 42, more than 50 percent occurred at construction sites and above 40 percent were fatal accidents.

Past records show 26 fatal accidents and nine cases of partial disability between 2016 and 2017.  In the same period, the health ministry recorded more than 33,000 cases of work-related injuries across the country.

The huge number of accidents or injuries is recorded because apart from helmets that are used by a few contractors, we have actually not seen any improvements in the precaution taken at work sites. The techniques and materials used by Bhutanese contractors have also not changed much since we began building infrastructure decades ago.

Interventions through regulations like the OHS remains largely on paper going by concerns raised at the seminar. It was expected that tough penalties would help, but now it is emerging that there is no clarity on penalties too.

The construction industry will only grow. Ensuring safety for workers has to be made an integral part of the industry. Some ideas like specifying OHS budget at the tendering stage for government works were suggested. A bonus point system could ensure a provision for safety and health of workers.

However, this is not a new suggestion. The same point was raised two years ago at a similar seminar.

Safety of workers cannot be implemented with penalties, although, in our case it is seen as the last resort. If workers understand the importance of safety, fatalities could be avoided. Understanding this is important. We cannot be so helpless.