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Rethinking safety, health for flagmen in road projects

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By Harrison Kanyemba:

Flagmen/women are crucial as far as safety issues are concerned in the construction industry. They control traffic, using flags, in the diversions and where there is heavy machinery at work to ensure that cases of road accidents are prevented or minimised to the lowest levels. This job is mostly given to women, for it is considered easy and requires little effort.

This is a misconception because, in the true sense, the job requires one to be very strong physically to withstand the pressures associated with it. Unfortunately, the socioeconomic status and educational levels of flagmen/women are low and, therefore, less attention is paid to their health. There are a lot of health risks associated with the job, which qualifies it to be one of the toughest in the industry, contrary to many people’s opinion. In most, if not all, construction companies, flagmen/women work from 6:00 am to 5:30 pm.

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They have to keep standing for 11 hours except for an hour of a lunch break or just two minutes when they want to use the toilet. Seating down or resting of any kind is regarded as a performance issue and economic suicide, for their salaries are calculated based on the number of hours they work in a day. The health risks these noble workers are exposed to come from three sources which are: Prolonged standing, too much exposure to the sun and air pollution.

Standing is a natural human posture and by itself poses no particular health hazard. However, working in a standing position regularly can cause sore feet, swelling of the legs, varicose veins, general muscular fatigue, low back pain, stiffness in the neck and shoulders, and other health problems. Expectedly, these are common complaints among flagmen/women in the road construction industry.

According to Revere Health, 2016, there are five dangers of prolonged sun exposure to human beings. These are short-term skin damage which forms radiation burns that come from an overexposure to ultraviolet, or UV, rays. The skin reddening is often accompanied by pain and blistering and, if severe enough, second-degree burns.

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The short-term skin damage may graduate to long-term skin damage which comes after extended exposure to UV rays. This may result in the ageing of one’s skin and pigment changes known as “age-spots” appear, and your skin bruises more easily.

Changes in the skin cells caused by prolonged exposure may lead to skin cancer, the most common of all cancers. The third danger of too much exposure is heat stroke which begins as heat cramps, fainting or exhaustion but, as it progresses, it can damage the brain and other internal organs.

When combined with dehydration, prolonged exposure to heat causes the body’s temperature control system to fail. Severe dehydration can lead to death. Lastly, prolonged exposure to heat can develop Hives. These are large, itchy red welts that come on the skin. People with this rare condition also experience headaches, weakness and nausea and, if severe, this can lead to death.

Since flagmen/women are located mostly in the diversions to direct and control traffic, they risk the effects of dust exposure on their respiratory systems.

According to Raheleh, Hannaneh and Mahdi in their Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, some studies have shown that sneezing, coughing, eye irritation, lung tissue swelling, asthma and throat infections were found to be more prevalent among individuals exposed to occupational dust. For women, who are the majority in this position, the challenges are more because of their biological makeup.

For instance, I once talked to one woman who is currently doing the same job in one of the projects in the Central Region and she narrated that the job becomes torture when she is in her menses. “I normally feel unbearable pain in the abdomen but I have to force myself to remain standing lest my pay gets deducted if I’m found resting,” she lamented.

Regardless of one’s level of education or gender, the rights to protection and health are supposed to be enjoyed equally by everyone, hence the need to consider the welfare of flagmen/ women in road projects. Because of this, I recommend, therefore, that the government, through the Roads Authority, should change working conditions for flagmen/ women.

They should be working in pairs at every point so that when one is on duty the other should be resting, giving each other turns after every two or three hours to allow themselves to rest and normalise their body temperatures. They should be advised to have two-litre bottles of water to keep them hydrated all the time.

On-air pollution, as most contractors provide masks once every two days, flagmen/women must be given new masks daily and let safety officers ensure that the masks are worn properly and at all times. As the government strives to fulfil 2063 development goals, attention to detail should be given to social issues to ensure that the goals are achieved with a healthy generation.

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