This story by me was first published in the IIJNM publication The Observer, on Feb 9, 2016. The Observer is the work of print journalism students who report exclusive news stories from Bangalore and the state of Karnataka.
Study finds lung and skin problems prevalent in construction workers
When I use this machine, there is so much dust, that my chest pains and I cough,” says Ainul Haq, whose one hand clutches a drilling machine and the other points towards his chest.
“We do not get nose masks, we get only dal-chawal,” says the 22-year-old from Assam. He is a labourer at a metro construction site in Bangalore. He has never gone to see a doctor yet for his chest and breathing problems, because it has “just been seven months” in this industry.
On the other end of the spectrum is Sunil Kumar, a site supervisor who has spent at least two decades in the dust, watching apartments being built, from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, and now Bangalore.
He is 42, and the handkerchief he uses as a makeshift nose mask has just slipped down to reveal his nose and moustache.
He says: “I often go to the doctor. The environment at the site obviously affects the health. The doctor says it is allergy.”
Haq adds: “Some workers who work with iron rods sometimes get hurt in their hand. We do not have hand gloves.”
The Karnataka construction industry employs about 12 to 15 lakh workers like Kumar and Haq, many of them migrants. A recent study of migrant construction workers in Udupi, Karnataka showed that 33.2 per cent of them have respiratory symptoms.
A third of the workers surveyed were not using any personal protective equipment (PPE).
The study noted that due to the migratory nature of the work, workers are not available for follow-up.
Dr. Ramachandra Kamath of Manipal University, one of the authors of the paper, said: “Anyone who works with cement with bare hands, is going to develop problems. Outside India, they don’t touch cement with bare hands. Here, we are still ignorant about alternative concepts.”
He suggested the use of protective gear like gloves, gumboots, nose masks and helmets.
Most migrant workers surveyed for the study were from West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand. Only 13 of the 340 workers surveyed had a monthly income of more than Rs.10,000, and a quarter earned less than Rs.5,000 a month. Forty per cent of the workers were illiterate.
Dr. B.L. Shashi Bhushan of department of pulmonology at Bangalore Medical College and Research Institute, said: “Construction work causes lung problems due to chronic inhalation of dust. Continuous inhalation over a long period of time causes difficulty in breathing, chronic cough and allergy.” He added that Bangalore is the “capital city for allergy in India”.
Shardul Kaushik, a civil engineer, listed the activities that can expose workers to dust and respiratory ailments: grinding and cutting activities, paints, waterproofing, making of concrete and earthwork.
He said: “Workers can protect themselves by regular use of masks and monthly health check-ups. But they are all too casual about this, because of work pressure.”
Dr. Kamath said that the problem exists more among workers who are migrants. “It is more prevalent among them because their livelihood depends only on this work. They work at different places for short periods of time, and there are different practices at each of those places.”
Dr. Bhushan said that the only solution is avoidance. “Nose masks are not so effective. In Indian setup, we don’t see masks being used much at construction sites. Surgical masks can help only psychologically. If they use tight fitted mask, they won’t be able to work. It will be so tight they can’t breathe.”
He also said that workers should report early symptoms to the doctor.
C Palanikumar, general secretary of Karnataka State Construction Workers’ Union, said: “Construction workers face so many lung problems. One solution is to create awareness among construction workers. Classes should be conducted to teach them about this.
“Medical officers should be sent to construction sites to teach them about use of nose masks, gumboots and helmets.”