It is not uncommon to witness a horrific and fatal accident around construction sites in Ethiopia.
There was one on Monday in Bole District. It could only have been demoralising and painful for individuals to find colleagues, who were alive and well a minute ago, now dead. It is even more so when such incidents occur as a result of inadequate safeguards to protect against hazards by employers and poor enforcement by the authorities.
Work-related injuries are identified as one of the leading causes of life-threatening circumstances. Globally, there are over 270 million estimated occupational accidents, causing two million fatalities annually, according to the International Labor Organisation. Aside from the staggering costs associated with accidents there are the damaging effects on the health and socio-economic statuses of workers.
Researches reveal that illnesses, traumatic injuries and fatalities are more prevalent among workers in the construction industry than in any other occupation. The risk of fatality involved is five times higher than in the manufacturing industry while the hazards faced by construction workers in developing countries is 20 times higher than in developed countries.
Poor occupational safety situations in Ethiopia occur as a result of poor design of equipment and workstations, lack of personal protective equipment and inadequate training of workers. Despite the statistical case for emphasising the problem, it remains neglected by employers and authorities who are mandated to enforce workers’ rights. Taking a walk around Addis Abeba makes this evident.
It is not necessary to be an engineer to know that construction sites are dangerous, full of heavy and sharp objects. Yet labourers are often seen without safety gear, such as hard hats, gloves or safety goggles. It is doubtful that workers are unaware of their rights, but they may be dissuaded by the fact that economy-wide job creation is not exactly encouraging enough to challenge employers.
As a result, every year 600,000 lives that could have been saved through adequate information and safety practices are lost.
Both domestic and international laws that Ethiopia is a signatory to stipulate that employers should uphold safety requirements in the workplace. But this right that workers have been afforded is not observed perhaps as a result of an interest to protect an industry that is thriving.
The labour inspectors, tasked to advise employers and workers concerning the most effective means of complying with the legal provisions and to correct the conditions that constitute a threat to the health, safety and welfare of workers, are habitually failing at their job.
Unreliable wood scaffolding and lack of helmets and safety ropes are usually the cause of accidents. Even high-rise buildings do not use steel structure scaffolding.
And when accidents occur, there have been several cases where employers dismiss injured workers, forcing them to cover their own medical bills even though they have sustained injuries while on duty. Thus, treatable injuries disable workers indefinitely because they are unable to afford the medical bills.
Safe and healthy working conditions do not occur by chance. Employers need to have a safety policy for their workers. Inspections and follow up on safety measures by authorities must be strict.
Currently, the matter is left to employers who are abusing their employees’ fundamental and human rights. Rather than reacting to an incident that could be prevented, employers must be forced to comply with safety measures.
Losing workers to injury or illness, even for a short time, can cause significant disruption and cost to employers as well as the workers and their families. It can also damage the workplace morale, productivity and reputation of the employer.
The law grants workers the right to a workplace that is both safe and hygienic. It is unlawful for an employer to require workers to execute work that is hazardous to their lives. Employers sometimes fail to inform workers of the dangers associated with working at a construction site and about safety precautions, disregarding the law.
The irony is in seeing site engineers and project managers donning safety helmets and standing at a safe distance, while labourers handling equipment and construction materials, and in some cases climbing wood scaffolding without any rope, are left to fend for themselves.
Do their lives not have equal value and dignity as the engineer? If not respecting the law, where is the human compassion?
Employers should realise that the primary goal of a safe and healthy working environment is to prevent work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths, as well as the suffering and financial hardship these situations can cause to workers and their families. They should not be reluctant to put their money where their mouth is on safety issues.
The notion of continuous improvement is vital to make construction sites safe for workers. As with any journey for correcting years of mistakes, the first step is often the most challenging.
The solution is to begin with a vital and creative safety program and expand from there. By initially focusing on achieving protective goals, monitoring performance and evaluating outcomes, progress will gradually lead to higher levels of safety and healthy work environments for construction site workers.
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