Opinion

Building a safer future

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Greater leadership is required to improve the safety record of India's construction industry.


India’s construction industry is its second largest employer and contributor to the economy, after agriculture. The sector, which mostly relies on unorganised labour, is also one of India’s biggest job providers. The country has witnessed a massive construction boom in recent years, in line with the growth of incomes and expansion of urban areas. Yet the industry accounts for 24 per cent of all fatalities due to accidents at work in India, according to research published in 2016.

The research, which was carried out by academics from the National Institute of Technology, Surat, and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, concluded that 11,614 of the estimated annual total of 48,000 worker deaths due to occupational accidents in India occur in the construction industry.

Hemant Sethi is the British Safety Council's Country manager for India.

This situation is in sharp contrast to Britain, where official figures show that 147 workers died in workplace accidents in 2018/19, with 30 of the deaths occurring in construction.

This suggests that India could learn valuable lessons from countries like the UK where the health and safety record of the construction industry has significantly improved in recent years.

In the UK, employers have a legal duty to carry out a suitable assessment of the risks to their workers’ health and safety. If any significant risks are identified, suitable steps must be taken to remove or reduce them as far as reasonably practicable.

There is also a specific set of UK regulations covering the effective management of risks to workers’ health, safety and welfare during construction work.

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) apply to all construction work in the UK. They place duties on construction clients, designers and contractors to ensure that construction work is carried out in a way that ensures the health and safety of workers and the public.

UK employers are also required under laws such as the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2012 to protect their employees from the risk of exposure to hazardous substances, such as dusts, vapours, fumes and gases.

Crucially, UK companies that fail to comply with health and safety law face the risk of criminal prosecution and financial penalties. In 2017-2018, £19m in fines were imposed on British construction companies following prosecutions for safety offences.

In India, in contrast, many employers, including those in the construction sector, do not show enough care for the health and the safety of their workers.

In fact, workers in the construction industry in India are poorly trained because their employers know that they are easily replaced. Most workers end up in construction as a last resort because the working conditions in the sector are very difficult. They are not given adequate training by the contractors who, recognising the temporary status of their workers, do not invest in their training or their health and safety.

In addition to the high risk of being killed or seriously injured in site accidents, construction workers in India face the risk of developing serious and often fatal health conditions and diseases due to exposure to various health hazards. These include musculoskeletal disorders (such as serious back injuries), caused by unsafe manual handling of loads; and disabling and often fatal respiratory diseases, such as silicosis from exposure to dust while cutting and grinding up stone.

However, there is a general lack of awareness among the public, workers and employers in India about both the common causes of serious work-related ill health – such as respiratory diseases from inhaling hazardous substances – and ways of preventing these conditions.

Another problem in India is that in some industry sectors employers are not legally obliged to report work-related accidents, injuries and cases of ill health to the enforcing authorities. Also, there are concerns that even when serious accidents must by law be reported, such as construction site deaths, many such incidents in India are not officially reported.

As a result, many of those campaigning for higher standards of health and safety at work in India say that the available official statistics for work-related fatalities, injuries and cases of ill health seriously under-estimate the scale of the problem.

In conclusion, there is a great need in India for a culture change regarding the way that risks to workers’ health, safety and wellbeing are managed, including during construction work.

Although legislation can be very important in helping to improve the overall health and safety culture, there is a need for safety leaders to champion the need for a good health and safety culture every day and at every level of an organisation.

Hemant Sethi is the British Safety Council's country manager for India.

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