Recklessness turns construction sites into killing fields

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Drunken workers die refusing to abide by safety standards; contractors flout regulations and pay off families and officials to stay quiet

Two workers walk along a sky-scraping crane without a safety strap at a construction site in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1

Bui Van Vinh is lucky to be alive.

Last month, the painter fell from a three-storey scaffold in Hanoi's Chuong My District and landed on an iron rod that impaled him through the right side of his chest.

The 48-year-old worker was quickly rushed to Military Hospital 103 with a two-meter iron bar running straight through his body.

Doctors who removed the iron bar said it missed Vinh's internal organs.

But unlike Vinh, Nguyen Van Ty was not so lucky. Ty fell to his death from the third storey of a house he was helping build in Ho Chi Minh City's District 9, last February.

Minh, a 32-year-old co-worker of Ty's, said the two had gotten drunk the night before, leaving Ty in a condition that might have been at least partially to blame for his accident.

After Ty's death, construction was immediately suspended at the site while police investigated the incident. The contractor moved Minh and his co-workers to another construction site, where they continue to work without basic safety equipment like helmets and harnesses.

In both Ty and Vinh's cases, contractors had not posted safety regulations as mandated by law. But Minh says there were other problems.

A review of official accident statistics suggests that construction site fatalities are a growing problem in Vietnam. Contractors, day laborers and officials have all provided divergent explanations for the growing trend.

What is clear, however, is that Vietnam's building boom now has a clear cost in human life.

Rising body count

According to the HCMC Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, 4,020 workplace accidents killed 505 people in the city between 2006 and 2010. The figure includes all workplace accidents not just construction sites.

An agency spokesman told Thanh Nien that fatal accidents have been on the rise recently.

A total of 242 construction workers were killed in workplace accidents between 2006 and 2010, according to the department, meaning that an average of one worker died each week over the four-year period.

However, a police officer in HCMC's District 4 said the statistics could be underestimating the total number of construction fatalities.

"There are some buildings, about 15 stories high, where more than 20 workers died during construction," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Nationwide, there were 5,125 workplace accidents involving 5,307 workers in 2010, according to the Department of Occupational Health and Safety at the labor ministry.

At least 601 workers died in workplace accidents nationwide last year, nearly 10 percent more than in 2009. The highest fatality rates occurred in HCMC, Quang Ninh, Hanoi, Binh Duong, Hai Phong and Dong Nai.

Worker responsibility

Some workers blame the rising body count on a pervasive culture of recklessness.

"Most fatal construction accidents that I know of were caused by the previous night's drinking," said Minh. "Almost all construction workers drink after a day of work. Sometimes alone, sometimes they gather together. All of them drink on Saturday when they get their weekly payment."

Vu, another construction worker in HCMC, said many workers don't use safety equipment because it makes maneuvering on the job much harder.

"Regulations at large construction sites are strict, but they only conduct safety checks at the entrance. We quickly toss our helmets aside after that," he said.

While many experts blame regulators for failing to enforce safety measures on the job, the regulators themselves blame workers and contractors for failing to adhere to existing safety standards.

"Workers bear the responsibility for not using safety equipment provided by their contractors," said Nguyen Quoc Viet, deputy chief inspector at the HCMC Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs. "However, if a contractor is ready to fire workers that violate safety regulations, there will be no violations."

Kickbacks and compensation

Huynh The, a contractor in HCMC, said many contractors bribe inspectors and compensate bereaved families in order to avoid penalties.

"Depending on the scale of the project and the contractor, a compensation for the family of a dead worker is often about VND50 million (US$2,433)," he said, adding that contractors often pay out equivalent bribes to avoid penalties and keep local officials quiet about the case.

"Each building costs at least two lives," said The.

The said workers know that they ignore safety regulations and their families often agree not to file lawsuits, so long as they get paid by contractors.

Viet, the labor inspector, said workplace safety regulations were clear enough but enforcement was too lax.

"Moreover, there are not enough inspectors to do the job," he added.

Viet also blamed contractors who skimp on required safety equipment to cut their input costs.

According to Decree 47 on labor safety, contractors that are found in violation of safety regulations may have their licenses revoked.

However, Viet said municipal inspectors have never revoked a single contractor's license for safety violations.

A Thanh Nien investigation of several local construction sites found almost all workers ignoring safety regulations.

At a construction site in District 2's An Khanh Ward on July 12, workers were clinging to scaffolding without helmets or safety straps.

Following the on-site death of his co-worker early this year in HCMC, a worker named Teo told Thanh Nien he had returned to his hometown in Ben Tre Province to work in a factory, fearing that his habit of drinking after work could cost him his life.

"I couldn't be sure I wouldn't miss a step on the scaffolds," he said.

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