Phub Dem

Two workers scurry around carefully, sidestepping the sharp-edged steels and rods that their friend is cutting on a machine. The blaring sound of the machine hardly bothers him even without an earpiece.

In the basement, the incomplete walls echo the deafening sound of the wood planer. The planer sounds like a woman yelling for help. The two assistants hardly talk as they move planks.

This is a daily scene at most construction sites. Safety is almost absent. None of the workers are wearing a hard hat (helmet). Some are in rubber slippers even in the cold.

The contractor said that he provided safety gear such as gumboots, helmets, gloves, and jackets. The workers agree but said they are not used to the safety gear. It was uncomfortable, one said.

At a bigger government construction sites, construction workers are seen standing on bamboo scaffolding without helmets or safety harnesses.

The safety of workers has been discussed for many years. There is an Occupational and Health Safety guideline, but it is still the same at the ground level. Not many are implementing the regulations.

According to statistics with the labour and human resources ministry, 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, meaning the injuries and accidents led to death.

At a construction safety seminar on Friday in Thimphu, Labour minister, Ugyen Dorji said that there were laws and regulations in place.    

But despite having laws and regulations and endless efforts from the ministry, independent studies have found out that workplace accidents are still prevalent in the country.

The minister said that a 17-year-old girl in Chamgang succumb to injuries that she suffered after falling from a prefabricated window just a week before her final examinations. Such Incidents and figures remind all the relevant stakeholders in the construction works to ensure the workers in the construction sites are safe and healthy, said the minister.

Lack of safety measures in the construction sites, according to Lyonpo was not only a threat to workers themselves but a threat to the public as well. “Maybe the death of the girl could have been prevented if safety measures were put in place.”

Loopholes in   regulations?

The Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) 2012, aims to establish standards on occupational health, safety and welfare on-premises, instruments, vessels, appliances, apparatus, tools, devices, electrical safety, and other hazardous conditions.

Participants said that even if there were regulations in place, details like how the contractors should carry out the practices and penalties for defaulters were not mentioned in the regulation.

The director-general (DG) of Department of Roads, Tenzin said that clause nine of the standard bidding document, section 5: General Contract Condition states that the contractors were responsible for the welfare of labourers, safety, security, and protection of the environment.

The DG pointed out that even large contractors do not have safety committees, safety guidelines and safety officers because details were missing in how to implement the regulation. “There were no penalties for the defaulters because it isn’t clearly stated in the law.”

Awareness of OHS in the construction industry was limited, which according to DG Tenzin was mainly because the focus was always on construction quality, the progress of the work and the cost. “The safety culture is not picking up because there are no effective construction safety guidelines.”

Best practices

There are only a handful of companies that follow safety rules. The Construction Development Corporation Limited is one. The Vajra Builder, who was invited to share their experience at the seminar, is one of the few in the private sector.

Sharing an experience, Vajra Builder’s project engineer, Sherab Chojay said a national worker, who was working on top of a five-storied building in Paro, slipped and fell off the building. However, nothing happened as he was wearing a safety harness, he said.

The company, he said has Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) committee which was registered and assessed by the labour ministry. The company is the only certified private company to get OHS implementation.

Cost factor

Despite having strict rules for OHS in the standard bidding document, Sherab Chojay said implementation would remain a problem because of the huge cost. Vajra Builders, he said, earmarked about three percent of the project cost for OHS.

Considering OHS cannot be made mandatory without allocated fund, participants recommended including OHS cost in the estimated cost of the project.

DG Tenzin said that the cost of occupational health and safety was not included in the estimates and were excluded from the Bill of Quantities (BOQ). “Latter when we implement the contract, it is difficult because the  agencies have not quoted the cost,  and we cannot enforce it.”

Participants also recommended the need for safety officers and committees in every construction company.  In addition, a multilateral collaboration between labour and human settlement ministry, and Construction Development Board was also recommended.