Blood Buildings: Safety in the Construction Industry of Nepal is No Longer an Option
by SUMAN PANERU [Adapted by ALBERTO EMBRIZ DE SALVATIERRA]
The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have brought with them a new ethos for construction and architecture in Nepal. Introducing concrete and steel construction has pushed architects to reflect their emotion and poetry beyond the old traditional construction techniques. Nepal’s building industry itself has also become more complex, and the increasingly diverse role of various stakeholders—from design teams to building masons—require as much management and attention as the architecture itself. However, while it could be said that construction techniques in Nepal have modernized, construction practices have not, and especially in regards to safety, this is a concern that needs to be addressed.
After the introduction of democracy in Nepal, the construction industry began to grow. Currently, Nepal invests more than 40% of its budget in infrastructure projects, and so far this sector is providing needed employment and contributing in the economic development of the country. Sadly, laborers are working in unsafe conditions, and work-related deaths are more common than anyone would care to admit. Studies done on work fatalities have showed that there are more injuries in the construction industry than in any other industry. Primarily this is because of the outdoor working environment, heavy equipment required to do the job, overall site conditions, and both longer and erratic work schedules: the numerous holidays, drastic seasonal weather patterns and funding can all contribute to frenzied work hours in between days of no activity at all. A census report of 2003 calculated that about 8.4% of the non-agricultural labor force were in the construction sector—today, the figure is much higher.
Given they also have less access to vocational training or skills-certification, they may never be actually recognized and employed as skilled or semi-skilled workers. Women permanently carry out the cheap, unskilled and heavy labor of carrying materials to the skilled tradesmen—a dynamic that saves contractors money and perpetuates the employment of unskilled female labor.
Whatever their nominal value, these statistics clearly imply that safety should be the country’s primary concern. These jobs include stone breaking, mixing cement and plaster, digging trenches, digging out clay or carrying bricks and materials to the plasterers, bricklayers or other tradesmen. These families of rural-urban migrants—men, women and children—live through hard conditions on roadsides, informal settlements or on any interstitial spaces which offer some shelter, such as under bridges or on the building sites themselves. These settlements without even basic amenities, place families at great peril. The hope for many, is that these living arrangements will be temporary until enough money is saved for better living conditions, but unfortunately the reality often turns out otherwise.
First on the list of things in construction in need of urgent reform is gender discrimination and the role of professionals and stakeholders in perpetuating a culture unconcerned with workers’ livelihoods. Many women from rural areas migrate to the Kathmandu valley in search of unskilled day-laboring work on construction sites. For the same work, women are paid less. At the same time, injuries are more common in female laborers because unlike their male counterparts that are bound to receive some elementary training, female laborers are largely unskilled and are assigned to menial construction tasks like carrying sand, bricks, and concrete from ground level to the various floors of a construction project. Women jobs often also feature a lot of repetition, monotony, static effort, and multi-tasking which can lead to serious health problems. Generally, design of workstations, equipment, task demands, and work organization are calculated for the average male body and may cause problems for women given their anthropometry is vastly different. Additionally, women and men are not distributed at random over the labor force, but are segregated into specific jobs within these sectors: it is much more common for men to be in positions of authority and management whereas women may work for years in the construction sector with less upward mobility, if at all. Given they also have less access to vocational training or skills-certification, they may never be actually recognized and employed as skilled or semi-skilled workers. Women permanently carry out the cheap, unskilled and heavy labor of carrying materials to the skilled tradesmen—a dynamic that saves contractors money and perpetuates the employment of unskilled female labor.
I haven’t even addressed sanitation in these work environments, but needless to say, because of “cost-saving,” open-air defecation is common in the absence of temporary restroom facilities in construction sites. Do we really want to continue to compromise safety, even lives themselves, to save money?
Second, more than 70% of residential construction in Nepal is based on the owner-build system: the owner selects contractors and subcontractors, most often with the cheapest labor available in mind. Many home owners select groups not even registered as construction companies which further jeopardizes the safety standards. Where safety ends, accidents begin. Unfortunately, because of the poor culture of safety concerns, many laborers don’t often wish themselves to be involved with safety—they consider it a burden that distracts them from working and reduces productivity. Yet, even if they did desire to engage with safer construction practices, the most basic safety tools like hard hats, gloves and protected shoes, are provided by very, very few companies—and even fewer require their laborers to use them. I haven’t even addressed sanitation in these work environments, but needless to say, because of “cost-saving,” open-air defecation is common in the absence of temporary restroom facilities in construction sites. Do we really want to continue to compromise safety, even lives themselves, to save money?
Of course, these occupational injuries are well-hidden from the public by the construction and real-estate industries in order to save business. Although some good companies follow basic safety standards, the whole of the industry needs to be improved. To minimize these fatalities in the future, all stakeholders should follow, at least, the minimum safety standards. Strong law enforcement from the policy level to educating laborers about safety could go a long way to ameliorating working conditions. To that effect, there needs to be more concerted work between policy makers, manufacturers, builders, and home owners.
Ultimately for Nepal, construction safety priority should be enhanced and needed safety training should be provided to these laborers. Reducing fatalities and the body count from what should be a fairly safe industry is essential. However, all involved stakeholders need to begin cooperating or be held accountable through regulation and laws. Efforts already underway should be further encourage and published more widely to disseminate the culture of safety. Only a few small changes, while not even overhauling the whole industry, could save a life, or a few. This should be sufficient motivation to act now.
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Suman Paneru can be reached at email@example.com.