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Safety shortcuts put workers' lives at risk

Update: March, 27/2012 - 09:21

by Thu Hien

 

Construction workers without safety harnesses at a building site in Hanoi's Cau Giay District. Employers' failure to provide their employees with health and safety training is a major cause of workplace accidents. — VNA/VNS Photo Huu Viet
HA NOI — Dao Ngoc Manh, a victim of a furnace explosion in northern Thai Binh Province's Hop Thanh Company six days ago, lies swathed in bandages, except for his face which is misshapen and puffed with oedema.

Under the dimmed lights yesterday in a ward of the National Burns Institute, where he is being treated for his serious burns, there are doubts whether he will survive.

Do Luong Tuan, head of the institute's adult burns department, said: "Manh's situation today has become worse as his whole body has begun to be seriously infected with bacteria, coupled with serious respiratory tract burns."

Manh's life is hanging by a thread but the 38-year-old worker seems to be luckier than his three other colleagues who are unconscious with burns to 90 per cent of their bodies.

Tran Thi Dung, Manh's wife said: "A witness told me my husband broke the window and jumped from the second floor to escape the fire."

Municipal police said 15 employees were at work when the blast took place in the early hours of Wednesday. Eight of the eleven injured were sent to the burns institute.

This was not an isolated case in industry and the wounds are not just physical. Thirty-five-year-old construction worker Bui Van Vinh lost an arm and said he remained traumatised since his accident at a construction site several months ago.

"One of my colleagues slipped while fixing a window on the sixth floor and grabbed my hand and I grabbed another workmate. The three of us fell and a steel bar on the fourth floor pierced my body and kept me from falling to the ground."

Vinh's life was saved but his arm had to be amputated. His colleagues died. None of them was wearing safety harness.

"I never thought about protective equipment or clothes because the only thing we care about is earning money to support our families."

Bui Hong Linh, Deputy Minister of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, said reports from the country's 63 provinces and cities showed that about 6,000 occupational accidents occurred last year (15 per cent higher than 2010), resulting in more than 570 deaths and 1,300 people injured. However, the real number of workplace accidents was much higher than reported because some enterprises where accidents took place did not report them.

Most accidents occurred in the construction and mining industries (27 per cent) and mechanical (6 per cent) industry.

According to the ministry's Labour Safety Department, the failure of employers to provide appropriate occupational safety training and ensure safe working conditions were major contributors to workplace accidents.

Accidental falls and electric shocks caused more than 26 per cent and 13 per cent of the total occupational deaths last year respectively.

"While there are so many people unemployed, I thought myself lucky to have a job," Vinh said. "Me and other workers take what the employers give and don't dare ask for safety gear. Actually, we don't acknowledge the necessity for these things until something bad happens to us."

Nguyen Van Truong, manager of a Hai Phong City apartment construction project, said that when he got a construction licence he was required to agree to provide safety equipment for his workers on his construction site but he didn't think it was essential.

"I would do more if I found there was any danger to my workers, but so far I haven't seen any."

Linh said regular supervision of workplace safety, investigations into accidents and their causes, and the assigning of responsibilities were below par, leading to a failure in labour safety regulations.

However, an expert in the ministry's inspection office blamed this inadequacy on a shortage of inspectors.

"The country has nearly 500 inspectors, including 120 who specialise in labour safety, while there are hundreds of thousands of enterprises and construction sites operating."

Also, punishments imposed on violators were too low to prevent labour law violations, he said. Of the total number of 6,000 workplace accidents last year, only two cases were sent to the People's Procuracy for investigation, while in most other cases the owners just compensated victims' with money.

Vinh said: "The owner paid all my hospital costs and gave me US$1,300 as his compensation for the loss of my arm. He wasn't brought to the court."

Linh said companies were required to regularly provide information on labour accidents, maintenance of equipment and other measures taken to improve working conditions. The ministry has asked its branch inspectors to punish companies which failed to report workplace accidents and to take full responsibility for investigating the accidents so any wrongdoing could be punished.

"Stricter punishments will be written in to the labour regulations," he said

Vinh said it was difficult to improve the poor working conditions because the employers needed as much benefit as possible. They would never "waste" money to protect workers and would rather pay a fine.

Vinh advised all workers to protect themselves.

"Don't get yourself into a terrible situation like me with disabilities. That will ruin your life. Many times since the accident I have wished I had been more careful while working on that day."

Meanwhile, Manh's wife spends her days by her husband's bedside nurturing a thin hope for her husband's recovery from his burns. When he was well enough, she said, she hoped he would be a white-collar worker, to "get him away from the danger". — VNS

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