Protecting Construction Workers' Health in a Pandemic
Published: 11 March 2022
In Kazakhstan, infection among workers at a road upgrading project was avoided because good occupational safety and health measures were in place.
In many countries, implementing effective labor management programs for construction sites is challenging. It is often a struggle to meet internationally recognized core labor standards as well as safety and health practices. This is evidenced by the pervasiveness of deaths due to work-related accidents and diseases, cases of child labor, and compulsory labor, among others.
These pre-existing issues are further exacerbated by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which presents serious challenges to efforts to protect workers’ health and well-being in work sites and their living quarters.
This article presents the case of the Aktobe–Makat Reconstruction Project in western Kazakhstan and places the spotlight on good occupational safety and health (OSH) practices that effectively protected workers against COVID-19 which included the creation of a safeguards team that allowed project implementors to deal with unforeseen health risks.
The Aktobe–Makat road is a two-lane national road that connects the administrative centers of the oil- and mineral-rich provinces of Aktobe and Atyrau (where the Makat District is located). The Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved a $240.3 million loan for the road reconstruction in August 2016. With a counterpart funding amounting to $42.7 million from the Government of Kazakhstan, the project intends to reconstruct and upgrade about 299 kilometers of a deteriorated section of the Aktobe–Makat road.
The Ministry of Investments and Development serves as the project’s executing agency, with the Committee of Roads—an agency under the ministry—as the implementing agency directly responsible for overall project implementation.
Before the reconstruction project, most of the road pavement was either nonexistent or damaged such that cars could not travel faster than 30 kilometers (km) per hour on the highway. As a result, many vehicles divert off the road and travel on parallel dirt roads or prefer to use infrequent railway services—significantly adding to the distance traveled as well as travel time.
Once completed, this 299-kilometer road will be upgraded to a carriageway of two 3.75-meter lanes, with a design speed of 120 km/hour in flat terrain and 100 km/hour in rolling terrain. This is expected to increase freight transit, improve transportation network connectivity and facilitate the creation of infrastructure centers in the country’s western region.
On top of these benefits, the project also provides abundant economic opportunities for hundreds of workers. By October 2021, 613 personnel—including 46 women—were working to deliver this major infrastructure project.
- 26 August 2016: Date Approved
- 31 December 2021: Original Completion Date
- 31 December 2023: Revised Completion Date
- $556.0 million:Total Project Cost
- $240.3 million:Asian Development Bank
- $42.7 million:Counterpart
- $273.0 million:Cofinancing
- Executing agency
- Ministry of Investment and Development
- Asian Development Bank
On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization raised its highest level of alarm as it declared the COVID-19 outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
By March, the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Kazakhstan. Containment measures disrupted operations in most, if not all, industries; and the construction industry—given its labor-intensive nature—immediately felt the effects. Construction sites were shut down, leaving workers who mostly come from impoverished and vulnerable groups at risk not only of contracting COVID-19 but also of the economic impacts of sudden job losses.
Addressing challenges in managing major infrastructure endeavors such as in the Aktobe–Makat Reconstruction Project contributes to global efforts to regain lost ground in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals in the past 2 years. In this regard, COVID-19 adversely affected particularly Goal 1 (end poverty), Goal 3 (good health and well-being), and Goal 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure).
Before the pandemic, the Aktobe–Makat Reconstruction Project was already achieving major gains from its labor management program.
Sourcing of workers was done in coordination with the Department for Employment of Local Population whose vetting processes ensure compliance with national and local legislation against child labor, discrimination in respect of employment and occupation, and forced or compulsory labor, as well as the protection of workers’ freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, among others.
As a practice, Kazakhstan’s local government employment offices maintain a list of unemployed residents since the officially registered unemployed receive welfare payments from the state budget. State policy also gives the local unemployed priority to be hired for jobs that meet their qualifications.
When hiring for civil works in the country, it is common for contractors to request the local government employment office for the list of local unemployed with their qualifications. For contractors, hiring locally means a lower cost for providing accommodation and transportation for their workers. In addition, this arrangement reduces the risk of social issues, such as conflict between workers and the local population.
In the case of the Aktobe–Makat Reconstruction Project, the benefits of this worker recruitment arrangement—coupled with the project’s labor management approach—are clear. No workers aged below 18 years were hired for the project and there was no indication of discrimination among workers in terms of recruitment, training opportunities, and use of resources. Workers were also free to move around, had access to their respective communication devices, and were given Wi-Fi access. There were also no delays in the payment of wages and mandatory pension contributions, and social and health insurance to workers.
While freedom of association is allowed by Kazakhstan law, it is not a common practice to form a workers’ union on construction sites. For this project, conditions were created in work sites that allow project employees and workers to directly contact the project’s Human Resources Department on labor and safety issues.
In addition, workers were given skills training by the project’s civil works contractors, a grievance management mechanism was instituted to handle and resolve workers’ complaints, and an occupational safety and health program was put in place. Workers were provided clean living quarters and access to family members. Inspections were conducted to monitor labor and social issues, and mitigation measures were implemented at the work sites and living quarters.
However, the unprecedented—and unexpected—impacts of a pandemic on the project created challenges. Close contacts and interactions on work sites and within living quarters would put project workers at risk if precautions were not taken.
The project was midway through construction works when the pandemic hit in early 2020, although it was not until March 2021 that the project took a direct hit when the Atyrau region was placed in the “red zone” category, which meant it is a high-risk zone for COVID-19. The following month, the Aktobe region was likewise classified as a red zone and was subjected to strict quarantine measures and restrictions.
In a bid to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in these regions, the national government required workers to present negative Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test results before entry and exit from work sites, creating a barrier and reducing access of key personnel and workers in construction sites.
From mid-March to May 2021, the government took a more aggressive measure to reduce COVID-19 transmission in these regions and mandated movement restrictions, including a suspension of construction activities that affected work sites for the Aktobe–Makat Reconstruction Project.
For project financers and the executing agency, this meant delays in infrastructure delivery. For civil works contractors, this posed a significant financial challenge of potentially having to pay the contractually established penalties and fines for noncompletion of the project within the agreed timeline.
In the face of unprecedented global and local health issues, project stakeholders needed to act quickly to formulate and implement measures and work to protect their workers from the highly transmissible virus, while also minimizing financial losses from government-mandated work stoppages.
At the onset of the project, the Committee of Roads formed a safeguards team to create and implement a labor management system that ensures the implementation of international labor, safety, and health standards at all work sites and living quarters.
The safeguards team is composed of social safeguards and environmental specialists as well as health and safety engineers who help form, implement, monitor, and report on labor management policies on the ground. They report to the work sites daily, are well-versed in the local language, and are empowered to coordinate with local government units and other project stakeholders on labor management issues. Communication channels were developed both within the group and between work sites, with a designated national consultant from ADB managing this interaction.
The creation of the safeguards team proved to be a critical factor in the project’s eventual COVID-19 response efforts. Working closely with other project proponents, the team used the 2-month work suspension to prepare for the deployment of new health protocols in time for the return of the workers and the resumption of work in project areas.
The team conducted risk assessment and consultation meetings to identify COVID-19 risk areas, determine employees’ and workers’ vulnerabilities, and develop corresponding mitigation measures. These new policies, protocols, and programs aimed at protecting workers’ health and preventing the spread of the disease at work sites and living quarters were then incorporated into the project’s Health and Safety, Base Camp Management, and Emergency Response Plans.
These mitigation measures include strict controls on workers’ visits to the town, wearing of masks and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPEs), and temperature checks on workers several times throughout the day.
Offices, workers’ living quarters, and dining facilities were also reorganized following physical distancing protocols, provisions were made for the regular cleaning and disinfection of these areas, and project personnel were appointed to monitor the cleaning and sanitation of these facilities. Handwashing areas were set up at work sites and base camps.
In select work sites, medical centers were established to include isolation quarters for potential COVID-19 patients, with medical staff who monitor compliance to COVID-19 protocols on site.
The team also conducted awareness-raising campaigns and trainings to introduce new policies and protocols at the work sites and living quarters. Delivered in the local language, these sessions focused on informing project employees and workers on the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 as well as practices that could prevent infection, such as social distancing and proper hygiene.
Led by the safety expert with support from medical personnel, Emergency Response Team trainings were conducted in all of the project’s work sites. Local specialists were invited at the work sites to conduct information campaigns on the prevention of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS. Information boards were set up to display posters on COVID-19 symptoms and preventive measures.
The safeguards team initiated and maintained close coordination with the Department for Protection of Public Health and local public health authorities to align COVID-19 prevention efforts—facilitating the inclusion of project employees and construction workers in the government’s free vaccination and infectious disease prevention program. As such, workers can access not only government information materials and attend trainings that are being conducted regularly by local health offices but also government treatment services if needed, free of charge.
The safeguards team received valuable inputs from ADB, which developed comprehensive training guidelines for the prevention of COVID -19 transmission. ADB provided webinars and trainings on its COVID-19 guidelines to all its project partners in the Asia–Pacific region, including Kazakhstan. The safeguards team also coordinated with ADB on the procurement and delivery of adequate PPEs, medical equipment, as well as cleaning and disinfecting solutions.
Regular monitoring of risk mitigation measures was also undertaken, and progress and results were reported to various project stakeholders.
Specialists were brought in to carry out certification of workplaces and the development of appropriate instructions for employees and workers to ensure that adequate measures are implemented to ensure workers’ safety and well-being while working during the pandemic.
Providing additional financial relief to the project’s executing agency and its civil works contractors, ADB as project financier also approved the extension of contracts that allowed for adjustments in project completion in consideration of delays resulting from the pandemic.
As a result of these decisions and actions, positive outcomes were achieved by the project—both in ensuring the workers’ health and well-being as well as maintaining a disease-free work and living environment.
Kazakhstan reported more than 1.07 million confirmed COVID-19 cases with over 18,200 deaths by end-2021. Yet, various mitigation measures enabled civil works contractors for the Aktobe–Makat Reconstruction Project to effectively prevent the spread of the disease in the construction sites. The Environmental Monitoring Report covering the reporting periods of July–December 2020 and January–June 2021 showed that there were no cases of COVID-19 infection among the contractors' staff in project sites. This accomplishment becomes even more notable considering the sheer number of workers closely working together on various physical tasks and interacting not only in work sites but in living quarters as well.
Various risk-mitigating measures implemented by the project also allowed workers—many of whom are low-wage workers and have limited resources to withstand the financial toll of the pandemic—to safely return to work and steadily earn wages.
While project completion was delayed because of government-enforced containment measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, potentially longer delays in project delivery were avoided as operations picked up from the 2-month work stoppage.
Several themes have emerged from the Aktobe–Makat Reconstruction Project’s safety and health program. These insights may be used to guide and inform existing and future efforts to promote the health and well-being of workers in major infrastructure projects.
First, sourcing construction workers through collaboration with local government channels results in a high level of local benefits and compliance to core labor standards and other labor, safety, and health best practices in major infrastructure projects, thus, promoting the protection of workers against unfair practices.
Guiding workers’ recruitment through the government’s vetting process ensures the observance of national and local laws on core labor standards and promotes compliance to regulations governing workers’ contracts, minimum wages, and working hours, as well as occupational safety, health, and social protection. It also offers significant benefits to project implementors and civil work contractors in terms of access to a wide pool of qualified workers, reduced recruitment time, and improved diversity and inclusion in recruitment.
The adoption of similar recruitment arrangements in infrastructure projects will go a long way in promoting workers’ welfare, and stipulating this in contracts signed with government partners, project implementors, and civil work contractors would further solidify these gains.
Second, by working together, the host government, project financier, executing agency, and civil works contractors can protect workers’ health and well-being even during a pandemic.
Construction workers—who are typically low-income earners and have limited access to resources to withstand health and financial crises—are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Work stoppages resulting from restrictions on travel and movement directly translate to significant income losses for these workers. Lack of access to social safety nets and relevant information on how to protect against infection, coupled with the need to keep working also leave workers more vulnerable to health risks posed by COVID-19.
Project proponents can play a key role in mitigating both the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 on construction workers by linking them to government social safety nets, implementing relevant safety and health protocols in the workplace, and offering opportunities for steady and uninterrupted work. The identification and appointment by key project proponents of their respective labor management focal points will facilitate this collaborative work.
Further, the inclusion of contractual provisions requiring project contractors to revise their occupational safety and health (OSH) program in the case of unforeseen health and safety emergencies affecting its workers provides ample leeway to adopt new policies and measures to mitigate unexpected risks.
Third, the COVID-19 pandemic amplified the need for an effective labor management strategy that includes a comprehensive OSH program, especially in major infrastructure projects.
The adoption and implementation of an effective OSH program enable project implementors to effectively respond to unanticipated challenges and health risks. This contributes not only to the protection of workers’ well-being during health crises but also works to mitigate delays in project completion and delivery—thus, minimizing potential financial losses from medical treatment costs, operational disruptions, and regulatory fines and penalties.
And finally, the creation of a safeguards team—or a similarly composed labor management team—at the onset of a major infrastructure project is beneficial not only in ensuring compliance to international labor, safety, and health standards but also in dealing with unforeseen risks.
The selection of qualified social safeguards, environmental, health, and safety specialists and the establishment of effective communication protocols within the team and with other project stakeholders are necessary steps in ensuring the effectiveness of the safeguards team in quickly assessing risks, formulating and coordinating risk-mitigating measures, and putting these at play on the ground.
Asian Development Bank (ADB). Kazakhstan: CAREC Corridors 1 and 6 Connector Road (Aktobe–Makat) Reconstruction Project.
ADB. 2021. Supporting Environmental Safeguards in the Central and West Asia Region: Suggested Standard Operating Procedure on Working Safely from Infectious Diseases (such as COVID-19) Consultant’s Report. Manila.
ADB. 2006. Core Labor Standards Handbook. Manila.
Dongsung Engineering Co., Ltd. 2021. Kazakhstan: CAREC Corridors 1 and 6 Connector Road (Aktobe-Makat) Reconstruction Project. August.
NC KazAvtoZhol JSC. 2021. Kazakhstan: CAREC Corridors 1 and 6 Connector Road (Aktobe-Makat) Reconstruction Project. August.
NC KazAvtoZhol JSC. 2021. Kazakhstan: CAREC Corridors 1 and 6 Connector Road (Aktobe Makat) Reconstruction Project. September.
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