Women construction workers face serious health and safety hazards at work and beyond

Builders totally ignore govt SOPs for women construction workers, such as onsite provision of basic amenities like toilets and other safety nets.

This is the first of a two part story looking at how women workers in the construction industry are disproportionately affected by air pollution and other work place related issues.

Women workers in the construction sector, the second largest employer of women after agriculture, are disproportionately affected by issues like air pollution. Not only at their work place but also at their homes. Many women construction workers suffer from illnesses like breathlessness but delay treatment due to the lack of options before them.

“There have been no studies carried out about the health impact of construction activities on the workers,” says Thaneshwar Dayal Adigaur of Delhi Asangathit Nirman Mazdoor Union, who has been working among  construction workers for the last 30 years. He pointed out that the issue of air pollution and its adverse effects on people has come into focus only after the government began to ban construction activities as Delhi’s air quality worsened.

Read more: Post-pandemic labour market: Fewer women getting work

“The percentage of women workers in the construction sector has come down to 15-20%,” says Adigaur. “ Earlier the ratio used to be 60:40 males to females. The reason for reduction is not only pollution but several other factors like health. Builders also hesitate to give work to women as they need to provide extra facilities like wash rooms.

“Women still get employment in the rural areas but not in the cities. In Delhi, there are around 200–225 labour chowks. Earlier, women used to sit at these chowks. Now you hardly find women at these places.”

“Whatever Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) have been laid down by the government for women construction workers on site like provision of basic amenities like toilets, safety norms are not being followed by builders,” says Bhavna Maheria, Project Manager for Mahila Housing Trust (MHT).

The air they breathe

Polash Mukerjee, who is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a United States-based non-profit international environmental advocacy group with its headquarters in New York City, leads work on air quality and climate resilience. “Essentially, pollution in a construction site is different from others, as the process includes construction, renovation, demolition, transport and the material from dust such as metals and other material emit toxic fumes,” says Polash.

“Women, especially in India’s construction sector, are largely employed as daily wagers,” he adds. “They stay in informal settlements in and around the construction sites and have high exposure to particulate dust and gaseous matter.”

The women are also affected by pollution due to the solid fuel used for domestic cooking like wood, charcoal and cowdung cakes.

Children of these construction workers are also exposed to pollution and so their health too is a cause of concern. “These concerns are rarely taken into consideration by the construction companies,” said Polash. “Even though the onus of monitoring clean air on construction site should be on the contractor this is not happening”.

Technology can play a big role in mitigating these problem workers face as there are low cost sensors which can monitor air quality in construction sites. “The government should monitor this but does not. The onus is on the government and the regulatory body. In Karnataka, the pollution board has taken it up”.

Pollution not the only health hazard

“In many of the construction sites there were no child care centres and this was affecting the health of small children. The women said they too were suffering but had no choice,” Bhavna added.

Another point Bhavna highlighted, based on research and observations was that “There are also high wage differences between men and women construction workers although they are both doing the same kind of work. There is a need to have skill upgradation for women construction workers.”

The MHT is currently preparing an endline report on the condition of women construction workers which is expected to be completed by March-April. “MHT will soon be having an office in Bengaluru as part of its expansion plans,” added Bhavna.

Read More: Dharavi women take to street vending to feed families

While awareness among construction workers on air pollution is a problem, “lack of representation is the bigger issue,” says Polash Mukherjee.

In view of the numerous problems faced by women in the construction sector, Mahila Housing Trust (MHT), in association with Purpose India launched a campaign to mobilize and empower these women workers to understand the impact of air pollution on their and their children’s health.

Among the major issues faced by women construction workers at the workplace were (i) lack of toilet facility (80%); (ii) lack of potable drinking water (70%); (iii) physically taxing nature of work (67%); (iv) long working hours (60%) and (v) other difficult issues like working under extreme weather conditions, non-availability of child care facility, (46%) and sexual advances (8%).

According to most activists, construction workers are aware of the impact of air pollution on their health but the awareness does not get translated into action.

women construction workers
There is also high wage differences between men and women construction workers. Pic courtesy Mahila Housing Trust (MHT)

Safety issues

Shweta Narayan, Global Climate and Health campaigner at Health Care Without Harm, pointed out that livelihood is the main priority for these women workers as compared to the risks associated with air pollution. As Shweta put, as any women workers and they will tell you “ye karenge toh iska risk hai, isse marr bhi sakte hai. Par jab tak naukri hai, tab tak hum karenge kyonki ghar mein bhejne ko paise mil raha hai” (There is a risk attached to this, maybe we could die too. But till the time we have the job, we will do it because we get the money to send home).

Occupational injuries, which kill over 300,000 people annually, is another major concern. However, data on construction site injuries to women are lacking, and there is no published statistics on occupational injuries and illnesses.

A sample study was conducted by MHT, Purpose and CMSR using data for accidents reported to the Delhi Police, Employee State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) and Commissioners of Workmen Compensation (CWC) of Delhi Government, which linked the data from each of the sources using the name, gender and age of each injured person, the date and place of the accident, and the name of the employer.

The study found that the annual construction site injury rate per 100,000 women workers was 82.26. The annual construction site injury rate per 100,000 workers of males was 146.5. There was no evidence that the rates of fatal injuries differed in males and females.

This study was the first to estimate the incidence of injuries to female construction site workers in India. The overall injury rate of female construction workers was over half as much as that of males.

This implies that female construction workers face a not insignificant injury risk. Hence, safety measures (e.g., personal protective equipment) that are appropriate and culturally acceptable to women are needed.

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