Building Heat: Construction workers struggle in sweltering summer

- May 6, 2024
| By : Tanisha Saxena |

Facilities for labourers at most sites in Delhi-NCR are minimal lacking even basics like cool water, toilets and safety measures; the toil has forced some workers to return to their hometowns

AT RISK: Workers get only a helmet and can be often seen working in slippers. The lack of medical help makes work risky

Prem Pal, a 63-year-old native of Etah in Uttar Pradesh, currently resides in Sangam Vihar, south Delhi. Every morning at eight, he heads to the construction site at Ambedkar Nagar Metro Station carrying two water bottles. He laments, “There’s no provision for drinking water at the site.”

Pal, who has worked as a security guard at the site for the past six months, voices numerous grievances about the lack of basic amenities. 

He states, “In this intense heat, there’s no restroom available. The existing shed is poorly constructed, offering little relief. Basic facilities for the workers are lacking. Just a few days ago, when it rained, the inadequate shed provided no shelter. Today, amid this scorching heat, there’s no suitable place for us to seek shade. Nobody pays attention to our problems.”

As summer begins, construction workers find themselves bearing the brunt of heatwaves — dehydration and heatstroke. With limited access to basic facilities on-site, they face increased vulnerability to extreme temperatures. 

Harsh realities on site

“Every day, as I arrive at the construction site, I am greeted by the glaring absence of basic facilities. The lack of proper amenities is not just inconvenient; it’s downright dehumanising. There’s no shelter from the scorching sun or the relentless rain, leaving us exposed to the elements for hours on end. Without a shaded area to take refuge in, the heat becomes unbearable, draining our energy and sapping our morale,” says 40-year-old Ram Prasad who is working at a construction site in Okhla. 

ON THEIR OWN: Several workers have to buy water bottles as they run out of water at the sites that lack handpump or an alternative arrangement

He continues, “It’s not just the weather that we have to contend with. The absence of clean drinking water is a constant source of frustration and concern. We are forced to ration what little water we have, knowing that dehydration is a real danger. And when nature calls, there are no restroom facilities, leaving us with no choice but to make do with makeshift solutions.”

The contractor may view the workers as mere cogs in the machine, easily forgotten once the job is completed. However, they are more than that; they are human beings deserving of dignity and respect. 

Jyoti Kumari, 29, another labourer accompanying her husband shares, “As a woman working in construction, I have faced a constant battle for respect and fair treatment. Male supervisors often overlook our skills and contributions, favouring male colleagues for promotions and raises. Worse still, our health concerns are brushed aside. Basic facilities like clean and accessible toilets are often lacking, leading to discomfort and even urinary tract infections.”

Construction workers labour within the confines of fenced yards covered with green cloth, shielding them from the public eye as they brave the scorching heat without access to adequate healthcare. Despite the searing temperatures and lack of medical support, they persevere in their duties, constructing, repairing, and renovating with determination. 

Mukesh and Anil, both in their mid-thirties, relocated to Delhi from their hometown in Bihar nearly a decade ago for work. Having toiled at various construction sites as labourers, they lament, “At the construction site, our needs are scarcely acknowledged. We endure shifts exceeding 12 hours and often face delays in receiving our wages. Furthermore, our health is grossly disregarded. While winters were somewhat tolerable, the scorching heat now renders us unable to perform efficiently. We feel depleted rapidly. Basic amenities, such as access to cold water, are non-existent. Despite our pleas, our supervisor only sporadically arranges for water without bothering to inquire if we require anything else. Handpumps are nowhere to be found in the vicinity, leaving us with no choice but to purchase costly water packets/bottles from afar.”

Health Hazards

In metropolitan cities like Delhi, where construction activities are rampant, ensuring proper healthcare and ideal working conditions on construction sites is paramount. However, many contractors often fall short in providing these essential requirements to their labourers. The lack of access to adequate healthcare facilities and unsafe working conditions pose significant risks to the well-being of the workers. Without proper safety measures and healthcare support, labourers are vulnerable to accidents, injuries, and health hazards. 

“This failure on the part of contractors not only undermines the dignity of labour but also compromises the overall productivity and sustainability of construction projects. Implementing robust measures to address these issues is imperative for promoting a safe and healthy work environment for construction workers in metropolitan areas like Delhi,” highlights architect Shaaz Bazmi. 

EMERGENCY: The Tughlakabad Metro Station has a medical room for the workers with a male nurse

Greater Kailash-based doctor Pramod Kumar, explains, “The impact of dust and noise on labourers at construction sites cannot be overstated. Dust, generated from various construction activities such as cutting, drilling, and sanding, poses significant health risks to workers. Inhalation of dust particles can lead to respiratory problems, including coughing, wheezing, and even more severe conditions such as silicosis. Prolonged exposure to high levels of dust can also increase the risk of lung diseases over time.”

Similarly, excessive noise levels at construction sites can have detrimental effects on labourers’ health and well-being. Constant exposure to loud noises from heavy machinery, equipment, and construction activities can result in hearing loss, tinnitus, and other auditory problems. Moreover, persistent noise can lead to increased stress levels, fatigue, and reduced productivity among workers, impacting their overall quality of life both on and off the job.

“The combined effects of dust and noise can exacerbate existing health conditions and create a challenging work environment for labourers. Poor air quality due to dust inhalation can weaken the immune system, making workers more susceptible to illnesses, while continuous exposure to loud noises can lead to chronic stress and mental health issues,” accentuates Dr Sanjay Kumar, General Physician, Cygnus Laxmi Hospital.

“Effective management of dust and noise levels is not only essential for protecting the physical health of labourers but also crucial for ensuring a safe and conducive working environment that promotes their overall well-being and productivity.” 

Labourers forced to quit

The trend of record-breaking temperatures observed throughout much of 2023 persists into 2024, with January marking the hottest on record and the eighth consecutive month to achieve this distinction. Rising global temperatures, attributed to climate change, are forecasted to lead to more frequent and severe heatwaves, resulting in heightened mortality rates, decreased productivity, and infrastructure damage. 

By the century’s end, it is anticipated that all regions worldwide will face increased health hazards from extreme heat, with poorer regions disproportionately affected. According to recent estimates by the International Labour Organization (ILO), a staggering 2.41 billion workers are annually exposed to excessive heat, representing over 70% of the global workforce. 

MADE TO WAIT: The labourers often complain about delay in wages and unsafe working environment

Comparing exposure figures from 2020 to those of 2000 reveals a 34.7% surge in the number of workers experiencing excessive heat. The rise is attributed to both climbing temperatures and expanding labour forces. Generally, countries most vulnerable to heat-related risks exhibit higher rates of poverty, informal employment, and subsistence agriculture. Disadvantaged groups and communities, including indigenous peoples reliant on agricultural or coastal livelihoods, face particularly acute risks.

Vicky Nigam, a 42-year-old real estate agent in Delhi’s NCR region, observes that labourers frequently leave their jobs due to inadequate working conditions in the construction industry. 

“Recently, a contractor mentioned to me the case of four labourers from Sambhal, Uttar Pradesh, who quit after feeling unwell following strenuous work. They complained of excessively long working hours and the lack of proper lunch breaks. The organisation of work is lacking severely,” he says. 

In March this year, a wall collapsed at an under-construction site, claiming the life of a 21-year-old labourer and leaving three others injured. Eleven workers were reportedly without safety gear at the time of the accident. 

Meerut-based labourers Mohsin Khan and Usman Khan, 27 and 29-years-old respectively worked at different construction sites in Delhi NCR region for almost three years. 

However, both the brothers decided to go back to their hometown as no safety protocols were followed by the contractors. Their cousin who is currently working in Burari in Delhi says, “We are uneducated people. What do we know about our rights and even if we know, who would listen to us. We generally share the woes of our workplace with our contractors and they simply dismiss us. The biggest problem we face in this industry is the lack of healthcare benefits.”

He narrates an incident. 

“The other day I was working at the site and accidently a nail pierced my foot. The contractor didn’t even care to ask me about the well-being, forget about helping financially. Who takes the responsibility of accidents at the site? We have no clue. Our families living far eventually call us back as the lack of money doesn’t make our efforts worthwhile.”

Advocate Manan Aggarwal, who practices at the Supreme Court of India, explains, “Labour courts possess the jurisdiction to address complaints regarding non-compliance with labour laws. These laws encompass various aspects of worker welfare, including the right to fair wages, safe working conditions, and timely payment. Additionally, enactments such as the Payments of Gratuity Act, EPFO scheme, and PPF schemes provide social security to workers.”

He says safety equipment is a necessity. 

“Labourers are entitled to safety equipment in hazardous environments, an 8-hour workday, with provisions for overtime compensation. Maternity laws and childcare leave provisions cater specifically to women in the workforce, ensuring their well-being and promoting work-life balance. Paid leave entitlements further contribute to workers’ overall welfare, ensuring they can rest and rejuvenate while maintaining financial stability. In cases of non-compliance with these laws, labour courts play a vital role in upholding workers’ rights and addressing grievances.”

Employers’ Obligations and Duty

Workers’ safety extends beyond providing them the basic gears — a helmet and uniform. In the construction industry, labourers are denied even the basic rights at the site. 

While 90% of construction sites lack basic facilities for labourers, some metro station construction sites, like Tughlakabad Railway Colony Metro Station, are stepping up. 

Most construction sites offer very poor, rudimentary resting facilities for workers
AFCONS, on the other hand, has provided a well-equipped restroom at the Tughlakabad Metro Station

Rakesh Saini, the timekeeper at the site, explains, “DMRC isn’t directly involved with the workers, but they do have guidelines in place and regularly monitor conditions. However, it’s ultimately the contractors’ responsibility to ensure the well-being of labourers.”

They have installed amenities such as a cold-water tank, restrooms with coolers, and a medical room for the labourers — truly demonstrating their commitment to workers’ welfare.

Saini provides insight into the facilities available for labourers at the site, emphasising the importance of health. Operating under AFCONS Infrastructure Limited, a Mumbai-based construction company, the project is expected to conclude in approximately two years. The forthcoming 24-kilometre Silver Line aims to forge a crucial connection between the Tughlakabad Metro Station and Delhi Aerocity Metro Station, strategically positioned along the Delhi Airport Express Line. 

“At present, we have approximately 100 labourers engaged in the project. We have installed a water cooler machine at the entrance for easy access. Additionally, there’s a spacious restroom equipped with a cooler where our labourers can rest and recharge. The structure is robustly built to shield them from adverse weather conditions such as rain or heatwaves,” tells Saini. 

The site also features a medical room facility staffed by a male nurse dedicated to addressing the health needs of the labourers. To mitigate pollution, the area is regularly watered to suppress dust. 

“Following lunch break, we provide glucose water to ensure the workers stay hydrated,” says Rohit Gaonkar, an administrative member at the site.

Despite efforts at some locations to provide basic amenities and ensure the well-being of workers, many sites across the National Capital Region (NCR) continue to operate without adequate facilities. 

This reality leaves countless labourers vulnerable to the harsh elements and devoid of essential support. Without swift and comprehensive action to uphold the rights and safeguard the health of construction workers, the toll of suffering and resignation will only escalate, casting a shadow over the city’s skyline and the lives of those who build it.