Construction Safety in Hong Kong (1)

Posted by Donald Leung on Thursday, October 31, 2013

With the rise in construction activity, there is unfortunately often a related rise in accidents within the construction industry. Of course within this rise, the severity of these accidents will range from minor incidents to fatalities. What is disappointing is that it is usually only at the most severe end of the spectrum of harm do accidents prompt the feeling that ‘something must be done’ to prevent accidents and the need for better construction safety practices is acknowledged and hopefully acted on without further delay. 

The Statistics
The construction industry accounts for almost one fifth of Hong Kong’s workplace accident records. These numbers have been steadily dwindling throughout the years, and taking a mere 5 year span between 2000 and 2004, the safety sector has clearly reacted. For example, there has been a massive reduction of -67.9% from 2000 where a total of 11,925 cases were recorded. Moving to 2004, there was a figure of 3,833 cases, 17 of which were fatal compared to 2000’s number of 29 . From this point on until recent years, the figures have been similar with very minor fluctuations – 2012 totalled a number of 3,160 accidents, 24 of which were fatal . Why have these numbers not decreased more substantially like the period between 2000 and 2004? This could be explained due to the booming Hong Kong construction market and the types of projects occurring – but does the industry need to be killing and injuring quite so many people? – Of course not.
Why is Hong Kong so construction accident prone? 
In June 2012, there were 1,157 construction sites in Hong Kong. This is over Hong Kong’s land mass of 426 square miles. On average, this means there are almost 3 construction sites within each square mile! Couple this fact with the population density of HK (17,024 people per square mile ), it’s not surprising construction has serious potential safety implications.
As a result of this dense urban landscape, a large portion of the construction is vertical building work to accommodate for the still rising population numbers. This inexorably creates higher risks with potential falls from height and operating of heavier and larger equipment such as tower cranes. So far, only construction workers have been mentioned in regards to the firing line of construction accidents. However, since a lot of the building work is in close proximity to public quarters, accidents also occur to pedestrians and public transport and the definition and method of categorizing and recording of construction accidents is rather opaque when looked at closely. With the long working hours and sheer volume of work happening, safety standards can sometimes be ignored given tight deadlines and pressure to turn a profit. 
Because of the abundance of high rise construction, falsework such as scaffolding is required in bulk. A unique sight in Hong Kong is the seemingly ubiquitous bamboo scaffold structures which are both an amazing feat of engineering, but also at times unsightly as well as at times quite unsafe.  Construction companies applaud the material for its flexibility and low cost, however this is challenged by critics who comment on the greater safety benefits of using steel scaffold. Hong Kong scaffolding workers go to extreme heights with the bamboo and within much tighter timeframes than steel erection. More often than not, this is in violation of standard safety procedures, for example workers can sometimes be seen working at height without the aid of a safety harness or belt – the presence of which apparently impedes the speed of construction as the workers find it awkward and problematic to move around bamboo frames.
A final contributor to accidents in Hong Kong is the weather. The scorching summer heat and humidity is a major detriment to on-site workers, especially to ones who are working at great height. This can lead to heat stress and heat stroke, whereby if safety standards are not adhered to (such as harnessing oneself to the building), fatal falls can and do occur. 
What are we doing to help prevent accidents? Is it enough?
Preventative measures for potential risks on site can be common sense but it is also part of the ethos and culture of a construction company & its management style. When site workers are given safety inductions and safety audits performed on intermittent basis this is a good start, however, simple safety standards (such as wearing a hard hat at all times on site can be easily enforced and maintained throughout the day. Safety officers are placed on site to report risks and accidents, however they also need to be pro-active and provide practical solutions to prevent risks in some pretty down to earth ‘good housekeeping’ type ways. When once considers the risks of a worker working at height not having secured all their tools to a tool belt or making sure a tunnel worker has reflective clothing, it could be the difference between a family losing a loved one as well as a company getting barred from the right to tender for future project work. 
At Maxim Recruitment we support construction site safety and we are active members of the Lighthouse Club Hong Kong Branch, a charity that provides support to construction workers and their families who are affected by injury or illness.  If you know of anyone  in the construction industry who might benefit from assistance from the Lighthouse Club we would be happy to put you in touch with the appropriate person.
Donald Leung
Recruitment Consultant
Maxim Recruitment Hong Kong