Photo Courtesy of Terex/Genie
Aerial work platforms are expected to grow in China as contractors look for safer working methods at height.

China rang in the New Year with five deadly construction related accidents that left 26 people dead and more than 50 injured. Curiously, the Chinese government last year began tightening laws and implementation systems to reduce accidental deaths in construction sites.

The recent accidents included a tunnel collapse, a foundation cave-in, a roof collapse and two cases of scaffolding breaking down.

A worried government issued orders on January 5, saying construction firms would lose their licenses to operate if workers are killed or injured for rule violations, mistakes or negligence. The move came soon after a December 1 declaration of an amended People's Republic of China Production Safety Law, which expands the scope and accountability of construction companies with regard to onsite accidents and incorporates a range of international best practices.

But there are serious questions about its implementation because the law, which was first promulgated in 2002, has been largely ignored. This is evident in the nature of the five recent accidents, each of which demonstrate some facet of law violation, even by state-owned companies, and in major cities like Beijing, sources say.

For example, a scaffolding collapse on December 29 killed 10 workers during construction work in a high school premises in Beijing’s educational district.

On the same day, five workers died when the Fenghuangshan tunnel in south China's Guangdong Province collapsed. A landslide caused the accident, according to the local municipal transport commission. The tunnel is being built by the state-run China Railway 23th Construction Bureau Ltd.

Rescue efforts to extricate buried workers were hampered because heavy machines had been kept in a haphazard manner in another site in Chenzhou city of Hunan province, sources say. Six workers engaged in constructing a machine room were killed at the roof collapsed over them, and five others were pulled out in that January 2 accident.

On the same day, firefighters engaged in putting out a blaze in a warehouse in the freezing city of Harbin were in for a deadly surprise. A wall collapsed over them killed five firemen and wounding 14 others. The warehouse was in the third floor of a 10-story residential building.

The scaffolding accident gives strength to repeated pleas by makers of aerial work platforms who want the Chinese government to gradually reduce the use of scaffolding and encourage use of mechanized aerial equipment to enhance safety and productivity.

“If you go round construction sites in China, you will find that the manner in which high-rise structures are built is pretty unsafe. There is a lot of scope for using safe equipment,” says Brad Patton, Hertz Equipment Rental Corp.’s general manager for China.

A strong desire exists in the government to implement safety standards and encourage wider use of machinery, adds Ken Lousberg, Terex’s chief for China, who has had talks with Chinese officials on safety issues. Use of aerial work platforms in China is just about one-tenth of the penetration in Brazil or North America, he noted.

The government also has encouraged the International Powered Access Federation, which runs training programs for aerial work platform operators, to establish its first office in China. IPAF’s capabilities will be put through its paces as it deals with giant state-owned companies, which are known to be a law unto themselves in construction sites, as well as sections of the government and trade unions, which are reluctant to accept change.

For instance, persuading trade unions to replace labor-intensive scaffolding is not going to be easy, experts say. Other challenges include a shortage of trained equipment operators and a burgeoning rental industry. China’s rental business is slowly becoming an important player as cash crunches and changing business dynamics are weakening the traditional preference for buying machines among state-run companies. But a large section of the renting industry is small companies with a handful of machines in their fleet. They are least likely to invest in trained operators and safety standards, sources said.

Maintenance is also a factor. “We train operators, we train management in the safe use of equipment, and we have a program for people who are checking the machines and doing the maintenance on them,”  says Tim Whiteman, IPAF chief executive officer. “The same applies in the case of used equipment. It just depends on the condition.”

IPAF officers hope to improve safety in China through increased knowhow,” says Whiteman. “We don’t check machines ourselves.”