Hong Kong lags in government regulations for workers' health and safety
Hong Kong lags behind many countries in construction workplace health and safety, writes Kylie Knott
No one wants to have an accident and I hope employers do all they can to avoid any more. It was tough to lose a husband and a good daddy," says Hongkonger Mrs Kwan, a mother of two boys whose husband died in 2009 when he fell eight floors while dismantling some bamboo scaffolding.
Construction site safety is a cause for concern in Hong Kong, one compounded by the HK$70 billion worth of construction projects in the pipeline in the next few years. These include the Kowloon East development project, a third runway project at Kai Tak, public housing developments in the New Territories, and five railway projects. Accidents and deaths at construction sites have risen in the past few years, reaching 3,160 accidents with 24 fatalities last year - the highest in the past seven years. In 2011, 23 people were killed in the construction industry, compared with nine the previous year, according to statistics from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), a non-profit organisation with 43,000 members in more than 100 countries.
One company raising the workplace safety bar is the MTR Corporation. At its construction site at To Kwa Wan, workers take one of many breaks they are encouraged to have during their 12-hour shift. Water in hand, they seek shelter in the rest stations as fans swirl around them. It's a relatively mild 29 degrees Celsius and a light drizzle provides some welcome relief.
Heat is a construction workers' worst enemy in Hong Kong and when the mercury soars, as it did to record-breaking heights earlier this month, the temperature under their hats and reflective clothing can climb as high as 40 degrees.
"Heat stress is the biggest problem, which is why workers can take a 15-minute break every 90 minutes," says Lai Chong-chee, senior inspector of works-civil for MTR Corp, his mandatory fluorescent orange and yellow jacket bearing the badge "Safety Starts With Me". West of the old Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon, the site is a part of Hong Kong's booming - and lucrative - construction market that's worth more than HK$140 billion a year.
But office dwellers, sheltered from pounding pile drivers, dust and drilling in their air-conditioned bubbles, should spare a thought for the thousands of men and women on the ground - and hundreds of metres above it on scaffolding - who work long hours in difficult and, at times, dangerous conditions.
With limited land suitable for development, property developers often look to the sky, filling it with the towering high-rises that have made Hong Kong's skyline, with 112 buildings taller than 180 metres, arguably one of the most impressive in the world. But it's a postcard-friendly picture that has paid a high human price, with 500 workers killed in industrial accidents in the past 25 years. (In 2009 alone, six people died working on the International Commerce Centre, the city's tallest building.)
John Lacey, vice-president of IOSH, says the statistics are worrying. "Accidents in Hong Kong have increased and we fear the number will rise because of the large number of projects planned for 2013/14. We need a radical rethink about workplace safety."
The construction industry makes up the IOSH's biggest membership, with 13,000 people.
It's vital that employers and employees are educated about workplace safety and health, Lacey says, and ideas and best practice techniques are not just discussed but put into practice, in particular efforts to prevent "silent killers" such as dust inhalation and heat-related illnesses.
"When people think of construction site hazards they think of collapsed scaffolding, vehicle accidents or electrocution. But it's the silent killers - dust inhalation, asbestos and heat stroke, lung function failure, strain, heart failure, heat exhaustion - that kill 70 per cent more people in the construction industry than quick-action accidents," he says.
"When scaffolding falls at a site it's considered big news, even if nobody gets hurt. But in these cases there is little thought for the man grinding away at stone work and breathing in silicon dust that will mean in 10 years time he won't be able to breathe. These cases - the silent killers - are the big problem."
Lacey says employers have a moral and legal duty to ensure workers are fully protected and cites a case in Australia involving mining company James Hardie. Through much of the 20th century, James Hardie was a key player in asbestos mining before a scandal in the 1980s which resulted in it paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for victims of asbestos-related deaths and illnesses.
"Safety and health in the workplace is about looking ahead, as well as looking at what's happening now. We don't want to stop work, but want it done with out harm. The hard face of construction in the past must stay in the past."
Labour laws in Hong Kong require employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers.
Those who fail to comply face a HK$500,000 fine and up to a year's imprisonment. The law was amended in 1989 (an update on the 1955 Factories and Industrial Undertakings Ordinance). So far, no one has been sent to prison, and this is a bone of contention in a city that exposes workers to a wide range of risky environments.
Chan Kam-hong, chairman of the Association for the Rights of Industrial Accident Victims, believes judges don't impose jail terms because they fail to understand the severity of such accidents. "Fines for contractor do not match the extent to which employers have ignored safety procedures." He also says developers often set "unreasonable deadlines" for projects.
Mark Divers of the Hong Kong branch of the Lighthouse Club, a construction industry charity that supports families hurt by the loss of a breadwinner's income through illness, injury, or death, says Hong Kong presents a high-risk environment.
"Bridges, high buildings, tunnels, congested work zones … working long hours in high temperatures are major causes of accidents. The link with temperature is clear," he says.
Significant strides have been made, especially by the big players involved in big projects, Divers says.
"But a major concern is the smaller projects like home renovations, areas where safety regulations are often flouted. And we could go further in setting reasonable time-frames for projects."
Divers says Hong Kong lags behind the rest of the world in health and safety, and has a long way to go before reaching the high standards adopted in countries such as Britain, Australia and Sweden, which have the lowest workplace injuries and deaths statistics.
Last month the Construction Industry Council (CIC), an industry body that works closely with the government, released guidelines on "Site Safety Measures for Working in Hot Weather".
"These set out good practices in ensuring safety and health protection to construction workers," says Cheung Hau-wai, Chairman of the CIC’s Committee on Construction Site Safety, who adds the measures also enhance productivity, creating a win-win situation for employers and workers.
Back at the MTRC site, Lai proudly continues his spiel: "Every morning we have safety talks and stretching exercises with the workers ... safety is our number one priority."