Friday, June 1, 2012

hardhat not required

I am not a construction expert. My skills and training lie in the field of fine arts rather than bulldozing and dump-trucking. Nevertheless. I can quickly spot a few potential problems with the above scenario:
  1. The guy is smoking a cigarette while operating heavy gasoline-powered machinery. A little sketchy.
  2. He’s not wearing a hardhat or protective equipment of any kind. Risky, in my opinion.
  3. This heavy machinery is perched precariously on top of the very pile of rubble that is being transferred; the guy is literally digging a hole underneath himself. Downright foolish.
  4. It’s not obvious from the angle of this photo, but the pedestrian walkway is situated inches from the backhoe. I know this because I paused next to the rubble mound and raised my eyebrows at the backhoe driver’s co-worker—who stood by, bare-chested and smoking, observing the work—silently asking if it was safe to pass by. The co-worker whistled at the driver, who swung the backhoe a few feet over and waited for me to move along the sidewalk. I resisted the urge to stretch out my arm and touch the heavy machinery, simply to demonstrate its close proximity; I feared that a minor poke from my index finger might topple the backhoe from the shifting pile of concrete and dirt. And none of us were wearing hardhats.

I walk through this passageway to work each day.

I have closely observed a number of construction sites in Hong Kong, particularly throughout the past year as I walk—daily—past the sites of three separate building/renovation projects on my five-minute journey to work. Some general observations:

Bamboo scaffolding. This is a marvelous feat of engineering, ancient wisdom and guts. One brave soul leans out a 17th-floor window and affixes a metal bracket to the side of the building. With one leg on that bracket and one arm grasping the windowsill, another bracket is drilled into place. The safety harness that is loosely draped across his waist may or may not be attached to something on the other end. Next, two or three bamboo poles are laid across the brackets and another guy climbs out and begins to lash more poles together. Eventually several workers are hanging off of various windows and brackets as more bamboo are handed up and fastened together. After hours (or days), the result is a geometrical network of stout wicker stretching across buildings or entire blocks, stronger (supposedly) than modern-day metal scaffolding.

Large-scale bamboo scaffolding.

Covered buildings. To cut down on dust and debris from construction work, giant net-like tarps are arranged over buildings. Usually green or white in color, this drapery gives the appearance of a mysterious shroud or veil. I watched several workers drop a giant, white tulle-like net over a building in my neighborhood, and as it gracefully unfurled from ten stories above, I felt as if grand wedding preparations were underway.

The veiling.

Primitive tools. A beat-up wheelbarrow driven by a shirtless man. Two women shoveling heaps of broken concrete by hand. Workers carrying buckets of construction materials here and there. The process looks more like a do-it-yourself Saturday morning project in the backyard, rather than the assembly of a multi-billion dollar housing estate in a modern world city. But why change methodologies when, clearly, this approach is working just fine? (By mentioning women, I’m not simply attempting to be politically correct; there are large numbers of females working on most construction sites, according to my casual observation.)

This is only nine stories up... quite safe, really.

Lack of safety mechanisms in place. I know nothing of the laws or safety requirements at construction sites or workplaces in Hong Kong. Yet there are times when I believe I should be wearing a hardhat, simply because I’m walking so close to manual laborers and heavy machinery, or underneath rickety-looking scaffolding. I’ve watched a welder who wasn’t wearing safety goggles. A guy running a jackhammer while wearing canvas sneakers, sweatpants and a t-shirt. The safety harnesses dangling from a waistline, dragging on the ground behind the worker. I know men in the United States who won’t mow the lawn without sturdy work boots and protective eyewear. If OSHA came to Hong Kong, they would have to hire an army of employees to keep up with the inspections and violations.

And these are the evidences of progress. Of modernity, development and growth. Newer offices and workplaces. Additional schools and community centers. More spacious flats and nicer homes. A better life, for ourselves and our posterity.

Or so they say.

I prefer the undeveloped, construction-free areas of Hong Kong.