A doctor’s account of what happens to workers who fall from heights

And how safety harness costing a few thousand rupees could prevent these tragedies

GKNN
Srinagar, Publish Date: Nov 13 2018 12:24AM | Updated Date: Nov 13 2018 12:24AM
A doctor’s account of what happens to workers who fall from heightsFile Photo

Bashir Ahmed was 27 years of age. The year was 2005. Regarded as an efficient carpenter, he was sought after avidly in the construction business. That Sunday, as usual, he was working at a height fixing the windows he had crafted to the wooden frame of a newly-constructed house when the scaffolding inexplicably gave way. 

He fell vertically for a distance of 12 feet. Everything happened so fast that he still recollects the events around the fall with some difficulty. The shouting of the fellow workers, the questions that the doctors asked him in the hospital, the wailing of his wife and the smell of hospital linen on his bed. 

It was only towards the evening of that Sunday that he felt heaviness in his legs and was told that his spine cord had suffered a serious injury. The doctors operated on his spine to stabilise it and remove the bone fragments pressing against his cord. His cord never recovered. That day the skilled carpenter became a paraplegic. 

Since then, his life has become a nightmare and he is dependent on his committed wife for everything. His whole life has turned upside down since then.

The Valley of Kashmir produces a number of skilled young men who work in the construction and high-risk walnut/almond harvesting sectors. Most of these men come from poor backgrounds and need to earn to support their families. Aware of their financial inadequacies, they get into relatively tougher sectors to make a living. As they work they become convinced of their physical invulnerability. They perform tasks very few can. They walk the razor edge smiling, and with disdain. Due to the very nature of their job the room for error is non-existent.

Ghulam Hassan was a fitness freak at 32 in the year 2007. An almond contractor, he loved joining his harvesters in the skies. He could walk the reedy branches. His workers respected his ability. They secretly feared his courage. He had everything people in his area wanted. He was well off and married, had two beautiful small children. He was known to help the needy in his area. It was during one of his almond tree harvesting sojourns that a branch gave way and fell 20 feet to the ground. His vertebra exploded and damaged his spinal cord irreparably. Bashir Ahmed’s story was repeated once again. Only that Ghulam Hassan developed massive bed sores over the next few months. He died a year into his injury, leaving behind his family.

The construction sector has seen the influx of a lot of new technology over the last few years. All of us are familiar with grinding machines, drills, motorised cutters and mechanised hammers. This is reflected in the cleaner cuts of our buildings, the intricate moulding and the complex designs of our roofs. 

As we sit in comfortable indoors and show off our houses, we should spare a thought for the safety of the construction worker and any worker who walks the heights to make things for us to enjoy, who harvests the fruit for us to feast on.

Sameer Ahmed, all of 20 years, was another of these daring carpenters who constructs beautiful roofs. Light of frame and sure of foot, he could hang from a single plank of wood while hammering in nails. Twenty days ago, he fell to join the unfortunate group of paraplegics. He lies in bed unable to move his legs, staring at an uncertain future.  

As technology takes over in most of the aspects of these trades, one area remains woefully neglected—the workers safety. There is no legislation or licensing in place that could ensure that safety nets, harnesses and better scaffolding are mandatory for workers who work at heights and defy death each day. As the market lets out mixers and shuttering for a price, it could easily let out safety equipment for a fixed rate (A good safety harness costs between 8000 and 20,000). As the families of these unfortunate workers struggle with the terrible cost that paraplegia care extracts emotionally and financially, it is time that these sectors in Kashmir are brought under strict legislation that make it a must for the owner, the contractor and the worker to improve safety at the workplace. It is heart rending to see the travails of these young men who suffer these injuries at the prime of their lives. For them it is darkness at noon.

(The writer is an orthopaedician. He requested anonymity)

 

GK HEALTH CORRESPONDENT ZEHRU NISSA ADDS:

Head of the department of orthopedics at the Government Medical College Srinagar Prof Manzoor Ahmed Halwai used the word “epidemic” to describe the falls of construction workers and walnut harvesters.

“Every autumn we have this epidemic of spinal injuries due to fall from walnut trees,” he said. “These people, all of them young and in their most productive years then become a burden for their families forever,” he said.

A study on walnut tree falls carried out by GMC’s department of orthopedics recorded 106 cases of falls from walnut trees between August and October.

Although, the most common site of injury was upper limb, one-fourth of the people had suffered spinal injuries and 12 had had head injury. Another paper by the department of general surgery at the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science (SKIMS) said that one fourths of the patients received at this hospital had serious injuries to abdomen and vital organs, usually spleen, due to such falls.

Another study carried out at department of orthopedics SKIMS published in Turkish Journal of Trauma and Emergency Surgery in 2010 noted that over 50 percent of patients admitted in the months of August, September and October at the department had suffered falls.

Even though fall from trees are seasonal injuries, throughout the year, hospitals in Kashmir receive young people who have suffered serious injuries due to falls at site of constructions.

Last month, a carpenter fell to death while constructing a roof in Shahbad, Sopore. A month earlier, three carpenters fell and suffered grave injuries in Sarnal, Anantnag, where they were working on an under-construction house.

Lack of safety measures, in walnut harvesting and construction sector, according to researchers, are causing a huge burden of disability in Kashmir. DrHalwai believes that introducing modern methods of harvesting walnuts in Kashmir was the need of the hour.

“What is most needed is modern machine for harvesting walnuts and preventing the most frequent and disabling injury in the farming sector,” he said.  He added that many countries had adopted modern harvesters that shook the trees so efficiently, and without any risk to laborers. “People can rent it out like tractors and mechanical ploughs,” he said.

Many doctors lamented lack of adherence to labour laws that make it mandatory for a contractor of civil works and others to ensure safety of the work force.

Labour Commissioner J&K Bashir Ahmad Khan said that a worker has the right and responsibility to demand safety devices at work. 

“If a contractor is being lax on this they can report it to us,” he said. He added that his department has started awareness programs for people about safety at work places. “We are hopeful that it will make a difference,” he said.

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