How Occupational Health and Safety Works in Bali

May 28, 2010

So I’m drinking an iced coffee in a  Seminyak cafe and watching these two locals attempting to pick mangoes, or something similar. I’m not big on botanical stuff. The objects of their endeavours are perhaps six metres up a tree. I’m a phlegmatic sort of person, but the way they are going about this task is sending squirts of adrenaline into my bloodstream and causing my coffee to curdle in my stomach.

I know that Bali is full of astonishing displays of cavalier disregard for safety, but what I saw was such a  combination of bravado, ineptitude and blind faith that even I was  surprised. I know, I should be used to it by now. After all, we have all seen things in Bali that challenge all conventional understandings of how things should be done without getting killed, or at least seriously maimed. I’m not talking about Bali traffic either – that belongs in its own microcosm of illogical and dangerous chaos.

No, I’m talking about daily activities that seem noteworthy at first, then start to feel normal with the passage of time. Like forty workmen packed into the low-sided tray of a truck, with four more perched unrestrained on the roof of the cab. Not your usual sedate, lumbering trucks either – these are juggernauts that roar and weave through heavy traffic, throwing their human cargo from side to side and launching them high into the air at every pothole. Strangely, not one passenger shows any fear, not even the ones on the roof. Their faces are immobile with fatigue and a placid acceptance of whatever the fates have in store. For them, this level of risk is normal.

Or you see road crew working beside busy thoroughfares, so inured to passing traffic that they never bother to even glance up as they step into the path of motorbikes, taxis and those Centurion tank-sized vehicles beloved by expats as they hurtle past. For these dogged labourers, this risk too is normal.

Then there are workers digging utility trenches five metres deep by hand, without a stick of shoring to prevent catastrophic collapse. They are surrounded by an ad hoc riot of undocumented (and leaking) water and gas pipes, and electrical conduits – some with exposed wires. The closest any of them come to a hard hat is a well-worn udeng – a head cloth. And in the midst of the danger and the explosive fumes, they are smoking. And of course, for them, this is normal.

The technician who installed the satellite dish at my previous villa accessed the roof by climbing to the top of a wall on the second storey and balancing on a tiny ledge eight metres above the concrete below. From this precarious position, he grasped a flimsy gutter well above his head, lithely pulled himself straight up with his arms and flipped himself on to the edge of the steeply-pitched roof. Even a professional rock climber wouldn’t do this without safety ropes. I asked him: “Why don’t you use a ladder?” He replied: “Won’t fit on motorbike”. And yes, you guessed it – for him this was normal.

So back to Seminyak and the mangoes. Two workers, one scaffold, two planks and a ladder. Their task: pick the fruit from the topmost branches of the tree, about six metres up. A two metre high collection of rusty pipes served as a rudimentary scaffold, on top of which had been placed two lengths of narrow planking. One worker had hoisted himself on to the planks, and deciding that they were too narrow to walk on individually, had pushed them together to form a slightly wider platform.

So far, so good – but the next logical move – to balance a ladder on the planks, was stymied because they were now too close together to support the feet of the ladder. Forgetting my coffee, I watched with mounting concern as the intrepid worker decided that pushing the planks further apart was too much trouble. Stability was obviously not a consideration. Instead, he supported the stepladder by letting it rest on the planks on its bottom rungs, its feet hanging free in space. This is not what you call stable.

The engineers amongst you will understand a additional problem immediately – ladder rungs are designed to support weight from above, not to resist forces acting upwards,  secured as they are by only a few flimsy rivets. Nevertheless, up went the guy – or at least he tried …

All during this time, his compatriot remained on the ground, smoking and looking totally bored. In fact from what I could tell, his only function was to keep track of the height of his co-worker above the ground in order to quickly calculate his friend’s terminal velocity, and therefore determine the most appropriate first aid for the ensuing impact trauma.

Fortunately, the aerialist of the duo only managed to get three steps up before the bottom rung sheared off. Worker and ladder went crashing spectacularly, but harmlessly, to the top of the scaffolding in a tangle of human limbs and aluminium spars. The ground-level guy didn’t even move as he continued smoking, but looked vaguely disappointed that his paramedic skills were not needed. I spilled my coffee down the front of my polo shirt, which was the only real damage of the afternoon.

But for those two, I guess it was just a normal day at work.



  1. I remember being amazed at the flimsy bamboo scaffolding I saw when I first went to Singapore about 35 years ago.
    Many storeys high and workers with no safety gear and just conical cane hats for protective clothing leaping about like young monkeys.
    Scary stuff for me. I don’t like to venture more than about chair height off the ground nowadays.
    Still, I can also climbing the highest trees and roofs and running up and down mountains and cliffs as a child. I was a real dare-devil.
    Those days are long gone sadly.
    Ah, lost youth.

  2. Add “remember” to the last paragraph – could help.

  3. I think it says it all when you see a family of 5 crammed onto a motorbike, no helmets (ceremonial scarves and elaborate hair-do’s preclude). If people are comfortable risking their own children’s safety, well it doesn’t get more extreme than that in my opinion.

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