Construction workers at both government and private sites have been unable to properly follow new guidelines for working under extreme heat, a union has said, saying tight schedules prevented proper rest periods.

Last Saturday, a construction worker died after being found unconscious while an amber warning was in place.

A worker at a construction site in Hong Kong on February 13, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
A worker at a construction site in Hong Kong on February 13, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Speaking during a press conference on Wednesday, Ho Ping-tak, the conference development officer of Hong Kong Construction Industry Employees General Union (HKCIEGU), said he had received dozens of calls from workers since the launch of the new heatstroke warning system.

“I have asked many workers from government and private construction sites on dozens of calls,” Ho said. “None of them could fully implement the guidelines, especially scaffolding workers like us, who belong to the category with [very] heavy workloads,” he added.

Ho said the arrangement of taking 45 minutes’ rest after working for 15 minutes did not exist at any of the construction sites he heard about.

A three-tier warning system to help protect Hong Kong workers from heatstroke went into effect on May 15. The system consists of amber, red and black warnings, indicating three levels of heat stress. It suggests different rest arrangements for workers working outdoors or in indoor environments without air conditioning.

A construction worker in Hong Kong, on May 30, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
A construction worker in Hong Kong, on May 30, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

For instance, under the amber warning, workers with a “very heavy” workload are recommended to take 45 minutes of rest after working for 15 minutes every hour.

Tight construction schedules

Ho said that developers and employers would like to follow the guidelines. “However, they have no choice as they have to meet the deadlines of the construction periods,” he said, adding that if they did not the contractors would face significant penalties.

He added that many sites would construct a floor of a building in four days, which was a tight schedule. These schedules remained unchanged even when heatstroke warnings were issued.

Unrealistic heat index indicators

The heatstroke warning system is currently based on the Hong Kong Heat Index, which relies on the data of two spots: the Sheung Yue River in Yuen Long and King’s Park in Yau Ma Tei.

The union said using just two spots could not reflect the real situation at different construction sites. Chiu Kin-Keung, vice chairman of the HKCIEGU, said it was especially hot after pouring concrete, and working on a floor with glass curtain walls.

“[The sun] is scorching and [the floor] is boiling,” said Chiu.

Construction site worker blue collar infrastructure
File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP

The union also said that it was difficult for the workers to check warning updates as Wi-Fi was weak at many construction sites.

Ho suggested changing the guidelines to let supervisors of construction sites inform and instruct workers when to take rest according to the guidelines. The union also urged the government to take the lead in extending construction periods for public projects if a heatstroke warning is issued.

The union also suggested the government to include more spots for indicating the heat index.

The Labour Department told HKFP that from May 15 to May 25, the department conducted over 1,100 inspections and issued 88 warnings to responsible parties, urging them to assess the risk of heat stress on their employees during work and take preventive measures to protect them from heatstroke.

“Every summer, the Labour Department strengthens its inspection of workplaces with higher risks of heat stroke, such as construction sites,” the department said. “If our staff [discover] that employers have not performed the necessary occupational safety and health measures in accordance with relevant Guidance Notes (GN), so far as reasonably practicable, they will take follow-up action as appropriate.”

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Mandy Cheng is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. Previously, she worked at Ming Pao, focusing on investigative and feature reporting. She also contributed to Cable TV and others.