16 August 2016

Why your builders need to be safe

About a week ago, as I walked past a construction site in Kololo, I saw a painter seated on one of the horizontal metal bars that were used as support going about his work. He had tied the paint bucket with a rope around his waist. Where he had gathered the courage to stand on the eighth floor outside the building he was painting is something I failed to understand.
This, and many more other incidents show how builders on sites, big or small, put their lives at risk, which in several cases leads to death. But when I saw him up there, the question that immediately came to mind was what if something scared him and he fell down, who would take the blame? Would it be the painter or someone else?

The Law
Bunnett Bagombeka, an engineer with Franbag Bau Uganda Limited, explains that in the Occupational Safety and Health Act 2006, Section 13, the responsibilities and obligations of employers stipulates that it is their (employer’s) duty to protect workers. This, Bagombeka says, involves taking all possible measures to ensure that the site staff and the visiting public are free from danger and ensuring that the working environment is free from hazards.

“If a worker is painting a height and they accidentally fall, there is a high possibility that he will seriously injure himself or the passers-by or even both,” Bagombeka says, adding that the painter in this case, needed an additional special safety harness which is connected to a strong rope tied to a stable support so that when he falls off, he hangs on the rope and is held in position by the harness.
A safety harness is a rope-like structure that looks more like a trouser suspender worn by builders on heights.
Stuart Oramire, a lawyer, explains that under civil law, when a house is under construction, when a builder sustains injuries or when they die and an investigation is carried out by court and it is evidenced that it was the negligence of the site owner who provided sub-standard or inadequate material that resulted into the injuries or death of the builder, the site owner is held liable for such injuries or deaths.

“The family of the deceased can go to courts of law and sue the building owner seeking for recovery or compensation for both injuries or death of their relative,” Oramire says.
Other incidences where the site owner is held liable for the builder’s injuries is when they didn’t provide protective gear such as thick hand gloves, foot wear or head gears.

On the contrary, under civil law, Oramire says there could be voluntary assumption of risk where a builder, for example ,throws himself to the ground from a building and they injure any part of their body, which could be breaking of their ribs or any other bones without being pushed by anyone.
“In such a scenario, if a builder goes to court and it is proved beyond doubt that the site owner or engineer is not in any way responsible for the injury sustained, they cannot be compensated because it is considered as recklessness of the builder,” Oramire explains.

On the other hand, he says if the owner procured standard material and in the due course of construction the builder sustains injuries or even dies, the liability is shifted from the site owner to the site engineer who was provided with everything but decided to cheat the site owner, either by not wanting to use all the material provided or when he had already sold off part of it.

Why safety measures are ignored
Joseph Oryang, an engineer with Century Investors Limited, explains that safety on construction sites is often overlooked in Uganda. The culprits are the local authorities, developers, who are the owners of the project, consultants, contractors and builders themselves.

Local authorities, Oryang says, are charged with the responsibility of enforcing the observance of safe practices in construction in their areas of jurisdiction as per the guidelines given by relevant professional bodies such as Uganda Society of Architect and Uganda Institution of Professional Engineers among others in liaison with the relevant departments in government.

“Unfortunately, these personnel rarely buy into the regulations and instead see them as opportunities to get funds out of contractors. When accidents on sites occur, they are rarely held to account but rather pass all the blame to the developers or contractors,” Oryang points out.
The developers, he adds, very often view safety measures as an unnecessary extra cost of no benefit to them.

They are often the ones who push for the use of sub-standard materials, uncoordinated changes in design and lack of safety measures, all with the aim of saving money on the project.

This, Oryang says is obviously short sighted because when accidents on sites occur, the resultant costs in terms of lives lost or permanent injuries can be high.
Unfortunately, Oryang observes that many developers get away with this laxity because the authorities don’t follow them up.

“When accidents or injuries occur at sites and workers get killed in the process, we are unlikely to hear that the tycoon developer is arrested and sentenced for manslaughter. They normally use their influence and money to silence the matter and make out-of-court settlements with the families of the victims,” Oryang observes, adding that this is relatively easy because most workers are not unionised and have no one to fight for them. It seems that mainly the multinational corporate developers look at safety on their sites as a priority and duty to society.”

The engineer adds that project consultants are often more concerned about the interests of the developer than those of the contractors and their workers. They thus tend to look at safety measures only to protect the developer instead of builders.

Oryang says sometimes, contractors will have no reason to object to effective safety measures of builders if the developers are willing to pay for them. However, safety is not one of the strong points in the training of Ugandan engineering professionals.

“In fact, many don’t ever hear about safety as a substantive issue in construction until they get to work with the multinationals. Instead, those who insist on safety measures will be viewed as being expensive and will often lose out on contracts. It is mainly foreign funded projects or those of multinationals that not only accept but also encourage or enforce the use of effective safety measures on sites,” Oryang explains.


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