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The Taman Desa building collapse last Friday is a sign of a broader problem. - NSTP file pic
The Taman Desa building collapse last Friday is a sign of a broader problem. - NSTP file pic

THERE is something rotten in the state of safety in the construction industry. The Taman Desa building collapse last Friday is a sign of a broader problem. But we can’t say we weren’t warned.

The Construction Industry Development Board of Malaysia (CIDB) in its 2018 report set off the alarm thus: “The Malaysian construction industry is killing its workforce at a rate which is approximately 10 times higher than that in the United Kingdom.”

This isn’t a surprise.

Between 2001 and 2016, the fatal accident rate increased from 10.7 to 12.8, a rise of 20 per cent. The picture is different in the UK. There, the fatal accident rate in the construction industry over the same period dropped from 4.9 to 1.3, a slide of 70 per cent.

The statistics for 2018 — the latest figures available — aren’t pretty for us either. According to the Department Of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH),there were 169 fatalities and 3,911 accidents in that year.

And the numbers have been growing from bad to worse. There is a reason to be worried.

The construction industry employs an estimated 1.2 million workers or close to 10 per cent of Malaysia’s workforce. Plus, it is a major contributor to our economy. Last year, the industry was worth approximately RM146 billion.

The construction industry is too important to be left to its own devices. What ails the construction industry? CIDB provides some insights. The industry is constructed around cheap, unskilled labour.

Safety is the least of its concern. If safety does enter into the equation at all, it is all on the contractors’ account. In the end, the workers pay with their lives and limbs.

And most of them are migrant workers, with no one taking interest in their welfare.

The developers and the designers watch from afar when something goes wrong, as it did in Taman Desa. Thankfully, no one was killed.

Unsurprisingly, the same site saw the collapse of a crane two years ago. There have been other complaints against the developer.

It is clear that developers and designers need to play a more active role in the construction of the building. To put it bluntly, leaving everything to the contractors is being irresponsible.

This needs to change. Developers, for example, can take charge of the site by better managing it in coordination with contractors. Designers, too, can design out significant number of risks that cause accidents and fatalities.

CIDB quotes a UK study that shows how this can be done. According to the study, close to two-thirds of fatalities at the construction sites could have been designed out.

To avoid such opting out, laws must make mandatory what is voluntary. Today, the industry has too many choices as evidenced by the voluntary guidelines in the construction industry book.

Concerned about the compliance costs, the construction industry chooses not to adhere.

Economics always trumps safety. Health, safety and environment matters are too critical for the industry to be made an option. Having enacted them thus, such laws must be enforced.

But there is a problem.

DOSH just doesn’t have the numbers to inspect all the construction sites in the country. In the process, medium-to-small projects are given a pass. This must change. One death is one too many.

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