Does ‘OHS’ in Bali Mean ‘Ostrich Heads In Sand’?

April 11, 2013

It’s always entertaining having a coffee while watching local riggers putting up the steel framework for one of the endless new hotels here. There are no hard-hats, no safety harnesses, no goggles for the sparking oxy-acetylene gear, and no protective clothing. There also seems to a complete absence of fear as the workers scamper along narrow I-beams, which may be two or three storeys above the unforgiving, rubble-strewn ground below.

The thought of death, or serious injury – even though it is only one missed step away – never seems to enter their minds, which is probably just as well.

Workers preparing girders at yet another hotel

Workers preparing girders at yet another hotel

I watched the chaps here hoist the steel beam (highlighted in yellow) from ground-level using only old ropes and muscle power. Then, by walking along two widely-separated beams, they carried it across to its intended position and put it on its side. I spilt part of my first coffee when one of them slipped during this manoeuvre, fortunately recovering before plunging to the ground.

As far as I could see, their safety gear consisted of baseball caps and thongs. That’s flip-flops to those of you whose culture may have led you to believe that I meant buttock-exposing underwear. They may have had steel toecaps, but I was too far away to see.

One would think that the beam would have been measured, pre-cut to the correct length, and pre-drilled on the ground, ready for fixing into place.  But no, not here. As it was about a metre longer than was needed, they decided to cut off the excess length once they manhandled it up there.

So the character sitting astride the main beam proceeded to cut through the yellow beam with a torch, cleverly leaving a mere nubbin of metal to holding the unwanted excess length. There were no gloves being worn either, which caused a minor problem. After the oxy-cutting job, the first thing he did was grab the cut joint with his bare hands to see how secure it was, which resulted in a fairly rapid heat transfer to his fingers. However, a bit of frantic hand-flapping seemed to alleviate the pain somewhat – until he did exactly the same thing  three minutes later. More hand flapping ensued, accompanied by what sounded suspiciously like fruity Indonesian curses.

That’s when the real fun started.

Our intrepid workman wrapped a few turns of thick poly rope around the short end – which looked like it weighed about 80 kg – and tied it off. Inexplicably leaving a 2 metre loop dangling in space, he then wrapped the other end several times around his forearm. The intention was obviously to
catch the piece of girder when it fell – yet the method he employed betrayed no knowledge of the behaviour of falling masses, inertia, momentum, kinetic energy, or any other fundamental law of physics.

Thus prepared, he hit the end with a large hammer, the girder broke off as intended and 80 kilograms of steel accelerated towards the ground at 9.8 metres per second per second. The rope snapped taut, his arm jerked, and he was a split-second away from following the whole ill-thought-out contraption to the ground, when his personal gods must have intervened to save him.

The cut end of the beam slipped through the badly-tied knot and fell to the ground with a mighty crash as it hit some equipment below, reducing it to scrap. Naturally, I spilt most of the rest of my coffee at this point. Leaning precariously, he teetered on the beam for a few seconds, but somehow – I really don’t know how – managed to recover his balance and climb back on.

Despite having had a reduced amount of coffee during this episode, although more than enough adrenaline, I left, unable to watch any more imminent-death scenes. He, after rubbing the rope burns on his arm for a while, just went on with his work as if nothing unusual had happened.

Bali is nothing if not entertaining.



  1. I had to laugh out loud while reading this – while attempting to eat my morning cereal. I wasn’t laughing so much at the complete lack of regard for OH&S in Bali (I too, have gaped in disbelief and quiet wonder at this), but more at the injections of humour, e.g. the suggestion of steel toecaps on thongs, and the very sad loss at various intervals of that most important of elixirs – coffee, during this entire procedure. However, humour aside, I wonder if the wearing of safety helmets and steel-capped boots would actually hinder, rather than help, construction workers in Bali? Not being used to this type of gear, would wearing it pose more danger to them? Add the tropical heat to this equation (sweaty, uncomfortable on the head and feet) and the result could be worse than the many near-misses. I have, however, seen the construction workers on the sites near Ngurah Rai Airport, wearing said safety gear. Is this mandatory, I wonder, or merely something to appease the eye of the passing tourist?

    • I think big construction companies like Angkasa Pura (the airport construction people) adhere (more or less) to international safety practices. It’s the smaller constructors in Bali who cut corners, and who seem to be the ones employing cheap labour from Java. For these companies, safety and worker welfare is not on the agenda. Maximising profit is.

      As for safety gear ‘comfort’, I hear that hospital stays are even less comfortable than safety gear … 😉

  2. My god I was holding my breath through all this, nearly passed out and turned blue!!!

    Jesus talk about a heart starter!
    Hope you didn’t give yourself a burn with all that hot coffee spilling.

    I wonder what the stats are on worksite deaths…..you never hear of any.
    Note to self: Start praying to the Gods.

  3. I remember an expat telling me of his purchase of hardhats for his workers building his villas, after a few days he went to check on the villas only to find the workers using the hard hats as very small bucket cement carriers!

  4. I have seen safety harnesses used on construction sites in kuta. Usually tied at strategic points around the build and on display for all to see…..pity no-one ever wore them

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