COMMENTARY ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

Construction safety:
The pandemic’s impact

Image: Aunging

The International Labour Organisation reported that every 15 seconds, a worker dies from a work-related accident or disease worldwide. Every 15 seconds, 153 workers have a work-related accident. On construction sites around the world, at least 60,000 fatal accidents occur each year, representing one fatal accident every 10 minutes. The question is, what’s the current state in Asia? And has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situations?

HONG KONG

In late January, a cleaner was found dead, hours after he had plunged 35 floors down a rubbish chute in a Tuen Mun public housing block. In February, a male worker reported dead, suspected to have fallen from height onto the 1/F canopy of a building under construction while installing window glass panes in an upper floor unit of the building. Over the past 11 years, five cleaners fell into rubbish chutes in Hong Kong, three of whom did not survive their injuries. The recurrent tragedy shows just how dire the situation is for such maintenance workers. In the construction sector, the rate of accidents is the second highest after all services combined.

The latest case in mid-March, a fatal work accident reported at an estate in Yuen Long. A male worker dropped down from the ladder and fell over the railing of the balcony onto the ground floor certified dead on the spot. In regard to the accidents, the LD commenced an immediate on-site investigation as soon as the department were notified of the accident and issued suspension notices to the contractors concerned, suspending any work-above-ground activity in the unit.

Based on a statistic released by the Labour Department (LD), the accident rates declined in 2020 and this, too, seems to be a result of the temporary closure during the pandemic outbreak.

Occupational Safety and Health Statistics in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020

 

Occupational Injuries by Sector in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020

In March 2021, the LD announced to increase the levels of compensation items for employees injured at work or suffering from prescribed occupational diseases under the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance (ECO). The amendments were gazetted and will be effective on 15 April 2021. As a result of this adjustment, the levels of 18 compensation items under the three Ordinances will be increased by 2.68 per cent to 18 per cent as seen in the Appendix document.

“The increased levels of compensation will enhance the protection for employees injured at work or sufferers of occupational diseases as well as family members of deceased employees or persons who die of work injuries or occupational diseases,” said a spokesman from LD.

MALAYSIA

In February, a loader machinery was passing through the Lingkaran Highway Tengah 2 (MRR2), Malaysia, heading to Ulu Kelang when it crashed into a steel frame holding up the crosshead platform. Upon impact, several structure steel frames fell and crashed into a van carrying five local citizens who were heading to Sungai Besi. Two passengers died at the scene.

The Malaysian Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB) stated that they will not compromise with construction project safety. In the case of negligence of duty, if convicted, a contractor may be fined up to RM500,000 or imprisonment of up to two years, or both.

Statistically speaking, occupational accidents in construction is lower than other sectors. The rate also declined from 326 in 2019 to 222 in 2020, mostly due to the movement control order (MCO). However, the death rate resulting from occupational accidents is the highest in construction. With 53 deaths in 2020, the probability is 1 out of 4. In the resumption of projects in 1Q 2021, this risk seems to be higher, as indicated by the fatalities on sites like Sungai Besi-Ulu Kelang elevated highway construction project (SUKE).

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SINGAPORE

In Singapore, the Tuas explosion killed three and injured seven other workers on 11 February 2021. The Ministry of Works (MOM) convened an inquiry committee to look into the causes and circumstances that led to the accident.

The Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council also announced that there were seven fatal workplace accidents occurring in February alone. Three cases were from the construction sector. Of the seven, three workers fell from height, three were caught between objects and one was involved in a work-related traffic accident.

Preliminary investigations revealed that safety and health hazards were not observed. The risk assessments conducted at the workplaces were inadequate and proper work methods were also not established before work commencement.

The total number of workplace injuries in Singapore in 2020 fell by 18 per cent, with fatalities reduced from 39 in 2019 to 30 in 2020. Likewise, the fewer injuries were due largely to the suspension of workplace activities in 2Q and 3Q of 2020 to manage the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, the number of workplace injuries reverted to pre-COVID levels by the 4Q of 2020, with 3,413 workplace injuries reported compared to 3,445 in the same quarter in 2019. The escalating injury rate in late 2020 and accidents in February 2021 are worrying. WSH speculated that companies could be rushing to catch up on project delays following work stoppages.

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VIETNAM & INDONESIA

In Vietnam, the 2020 OSH statistics remain to be seen, but past data show that construction also takes up a fair share of cases. In 2018 for example, fatality reaches 16 per cent of the total accidents reported.

According to the ILO, in 2006, Vietnam developed the National Programme on Labour Protection, Occupational Safety and Occupational Health up to 2010, marking a significant milestone for the country’s OSH. In 2014, the government has made a firm commitment to establish national policies aiming at preventing occupational accidents and diseases in the workplace. However, reports show that the annual incidence rate of work-related injuries is still high.

The construction sector saw the highest number of deaths due to workplace accidents in 2018. It accounted for 15.6 percent of 622 deaths. Manufacturing for construction, such as steel and cement, and textiles were second with 10.7 percent of fatalities, followed by mining with 10.6 per cent.

Fatal Work Accidents in Vietnam by Sector

Source: Statista

In Indonesia, the Minister of Manpower, Ida Fauziyah, stated that, based on the data from the National Occupational Health Insurance (BPJS), work accidents in construction have increased, from 114,000 in 2019 to 177,000 accidents in 2020. However, it has to be noted that this is based on the number of claims submitted to BPJS, which means that the actual number is much higher because not all workers have become BPJS members.

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CONCLUSION

Occupational accidents can lead to significant losses for individuals, communities and organisations. Safety standards vary in different Asian countries, but the construction industry remains the biggest contributor of cases and fatalities. The project stoppages, shortage of workforce, disrupted supply chain and other challenges during the pandemic in 2020 may have increased the risk of incident and fatality.

In Hong Kong, the general duty provisions of the Factories and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance require employers to provide safe working environments, plant and safe systems of work for their employees. Those who contravene the above provisions are liable to a maximum fine of HKD500,000 and imprisonment for six months.

The Labour Department (LD) issued a Work Safety Alert through website and email to remind the industry of the importance of following safety precautionary measures to prevent a recurrence of accidents. The LD will remind the employer concerned of the liability for employees’ compensation under the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance (ECO), assist family members of the deceased to claim employees’ compensation and closely follow up on the case.

For the sake of securing the safety and health of employees at work, the LD appeals to employers to provide plant and systems of work that are safe and without risks to health. Employees should adopt all safety measures and use personal protective equipment provided properly to avoid endangering their own work safety and that of other workers. — Construction+ Online