Clang, clang, clang. The sound of kids slamming pickaxes into the pavement at their feet. Three very thin kids, who appeared to be around the age of 10, stood together in a semi-circle taking swings one-by-one. Loose chunks were blasting off into the air, bouncing off their feet. Bare feet. The kids were wearing nothing but pants and a t-shirt. Why were kids doing this job and where were their shoes?
You may think that this was just the action of foolish children who were disobedient or who didn’t think to protect themselves from the dangerous work, but this is not a problem that goes away with age.
As I walked the streets in Bangalore and Mysore, I was uncomfortably close to construction work going on right next to the sidewalk. On one occasion, I had to step onto cement that was poured on the ground. A man was moving the cement around with his bare hands. A sight like this could never be witnessed in the U.S. because cement can cause chemical burns when it comes into contact with skin.
Working at Turner Construction, a general contractor in the U.S., we had very strict safety rules: always wear your safety helmet, gloves, glasses, and vest wen you are inside the construction site. We had safety managers who went over protocol daily and taught us to report any misconduct witnessed during inspection walks. The jobsites were always given a radius and closed off to the public, following government requirements. Here in Bangalore, the most safety equipment that I saw in use were helmets and vests. Civilians can walk freely next to, and even into, construction sites with the potential of building material falling on their heads from above.
Where is the regulation for construction and its workers? Do they not care for the safety of the employees and the civilians? I keep asking people in India about this great concern and each time, I am told that it is just how it is. Even when safety equipment is provided for the workers, they get uncomfortable using it and choose to put themselves in danger instead. But are they aware of how dangerous their jobs can be, not only in the immediate sense but also in the long run? It makes me anxious that the culture here in India may be that comfort is more important than safety, and that people are willing to risk more just to be a little bit more comfortable. This case is not just in construction, but also in everyday life.
So, my question is, how can we shift public opinion to ensure that the workers are conducting their work in safe conditions, as well as protecting the civilians walking by the sites? This does not stop at construction, but is a common theme in many dangerous jobs, including sanitation and waste management. A culture of safety needs to be ingrained in the culture of India and the government and the construction companies should set rules, inspect, and enforce safety.
India, please remember, safety first.