Occupational safety and health in the construction sector

Tightening bolts and strengthening safety

In the jungles of Papua, Indonesia, an ILO-supported programme has helped construction workers and employers understand why safety is important, and how they can make simple, practical changes.

Feature | Indonesia | 31 July 2015
ABE PURA, Papua, Indonesia (ILO News)   ̶  About 20 meters above the ground, on a complex steel structure at the edge of the lush tropical forest in Indonesia, Lexi Sawa whisks deftly up and down the steel columns. Wielding a spanner in his hand, he stops at every joint to tighten the bolts. He and his co-workers are building a high-rise hotel in Abe Pura, Jayapura city, Papua Province.

Lexi Sawa, construction worker in Indonesia’s Papua Province
Lexi Sawa is a construction worker in Indonesia’s Papua Province. While Sawa and his colleagues work hard to make the steel frame solid and strong, their own safety isn’t neglected.

“I feel more secure now,” the 23-year-old said, as he showed off his entire set of protective gear; helmet, safety shoes, mask and safety belt with a lanyard tightly buckled around one of the steel beams. “I can do my work in a more comfortable way and don’t need to worry too much about the risks.”

However, he didn’t always feel so safe. In the past he had been deeply worried that he could easily fall from the steel frame, especially during the rainy season when the surfaces became slippery. “I always thought if something happened to me, what would happen to my parents,” Mr Sawa recalled. “They are very old and dependent on me.”

But, despite his concern, he didn’t regard protective measures as important. “I don’t really understand working safety. The company gave us the equipment to wear but I didn’t feel obliged to wear it,” he said.

The awareness challenge

The construction company Mr Sawa works for, PT Bukit Abe Permai, also found it a big challenge to get its 30 or so employees to understand the importance of occupational safety and health (OSH). “The workers were afraid of the OSH officer,” Yuti Yusran, the Managing Director recalls. “So it is quite difficult to talk about OSH issues with the workers.”

The consequences were a slew of safety incidents and accidents, which brought financial as well as human costs.

Last year, a worker injured his feet by stepping on shards of glass, because he wasn’t wearing safety shoes. Two years ago, a subcontracted worker died on the way to pick up some construction materials. Even though he died of a sudden illness rather than in an accident, the company had to pay 50 million rupiahs (US$ 4000) for the funeral and compensation.

Construction workers in Indonesia’s Papua Province
One of the reasons for the problems, Mr Yusran said, was that the workers, like Mr Sawa, didn’t appreciate the need for workplace safety and health.

However, construction workers’ views began to change when the company joined the Work Improvement in Small Construction Sites training (WISCON) in 2014. The training was organized by the Indonesian Government. The International Labour Organization( ILO)/Korea Partnership Programme contributed significantly to the launch and roll-out of the programme.

Low-cost prevention measures

The WISCON approach is designed to help and encourage small construction companies to implement low-cost, simple and sometimes voluntary measures to reduce the risks of accidents or diseases at the workplace.

“Before the training, the implementation of OSH measures was only on paper and no action was taken,” Mr Yusran said. “After the training, we made concrete plans to implement the protective measures.”

From the WISCON training Mr Sawa learned to be aware of safety, identify potential risks and use safety equipment. “The improvement can start from small things such as removing the garbage from the workplace or putting tools in order,” he said.

Now every morning work starts with a safety briefing. The workers are alerted to use safety equipment, wear protective gear and keep the workplace clean.

Prevention pays

From a business perspective Mr Yusran can also see the benefits. “The workers focus more on their work and worry less about risks in the workplace,” he said.

Herdian Tobo, the local labour inspector, has also seen changes - the workers don’t try to avoid him anymore. “Papua is a remote area in the country and it is very difficult for me to visit all workplaces or construction sites,” Mr Tobo said. “So it is necessary to help the workers and employers to create a ‘safety culture’ at the workplace.”

A safety culture is what the ILO is trying to put in place in some 65 construction companies in Papua, as well as in other parts of Indonesia.

“The construction sector has the highest rate of both fatal and non-fatal accidents in Indonesia. The ILO has been working with the Indonesian Government to improve OSH conditions of the construction workers,” said Julia Lusiani, ILO Programme Officer based in the ILO’s Jakarta Office,.. “It’s great to see that the WISCON training has helped to build awareness of the importance of OSH among both employers and workers. And that the result has been an improvement in working conditions and a reduction in the number of accidents.”

The Indonesian government appreciates the support from the ILO/Korea Partnership Programme. “The participatory approach together involving labour inspectors, workers and employers to review existing positive practices will encourage both workers and employers to continue making improvements at the workplace,” said Mr Mudji Handaya, Director General of Labour Inspection, Ministry of Manpower (MOM), Indonesia.

With a long, intense twist of the spanner, Mr Sawa tightens his last bolt of the day. After putting the equipment back in its proper place and taking off his work outfit, he is ready to go home. “I hope that there will be more training about OSH for me and my friends at work,” Mr Sawa said. “I feel that it is really useful and practical.”