The quality of life (QOL) of the Chinese 'floating' migrant population is of growing concern. Urban construction workers are the main migrant population in China, but there is little published research on their QOL. The reliability and validity of the 36-Item Short Form Health Survey (SF-36) questionnaire were assessed by conducting a population-based study of migrant construction workers in Shenyang, China. Two construction sites were randomly selected from each of the five districts of Shenyang City and 1200 copies of the questionnaire were distributed to rurally-registered, non-Shenyang workers aged > or = 16 years at these sites. A total of 1125 questionnaires were evaluated. The overall Cronbach's alpha coefficient of the SF-36 questionnaire was 0.821 while the respective Cronbach's alpha coefficient for each dimension was > 0.70. Results showed that the SF-36 questionnaire demonstrated good reliability and validity, and that it can be used to measure QOL among Chinese migrant urban construction workers.