Recent construction health and safety initiatives suggest that the UAE is leading the way in promoting best practice, but more collaboration is needed industry wide to develop clear regulations and ensure compliance. Louise Birchall reports
It looks like 2010 is going to be an influential year in achieving best practice in the region’s construction industry, with recent government-led initiatives sending a clear message that safety is being taken seriously. In the UAE, Abu Dhabi is leading the way. Last month, Al Ain Municipality partnered with design and engineering company Atkins to establish an Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) Department for the Building and Construction Sector in Al Ain.
Furthermore, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Municipal Affairs intends to implement International Building Codes to raise standards in the first quarter of this year, providing a clear set of guidelines for contractors to follow.
While these steps may be considered long overdue by some, they certainly are a move in the right direction; addressing the core issues currently preventing industry from providing a safe working environment.
The first of which is a lack of health and safety legislation at federal level or one single set of guidelines for the UAE, and the second is the burgeoning need for one designated regulatory body in the emirates; like the new Al Ain EHS department, but UAE wide.
Al Habtoor Leighton Group divisional safety manager for Dubai and Oman Robert Riley has more than 32 years’ experience in construction, which includes site safety manager roles on some of the UAE’s largest construction sites. During his career, he has investigated eight site fatalities and many serious accidents from the perspective of enforcement officer and main contractor in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In November 2009, Al Habtoor Leighton Group suffered two serious incidents onsite, which resulted in fatalities. Having witnessed how these occurrences were dealt with, Riley concludes that there is no consistency. “There is no continuity, no enabling type act from federal authority, no defined legislation, no single body of enforcement or sense of fair play,” he recalls.
“One single EHS enforcement authority which acts as legislators, investigators and guidance providers would be a more effective way of striving towards what we all want, which is zero fatalities and a significant reduction in workplace injuries,” adds Riley.
And inconsistencies in regulations and enforcement aren’t confined to between the emirates. Within Dubai, for example, responsibility for regulating safety onsite is divided among a number of controlling authorities, such as TECOM, JAFZA and Dubai Silicon Oasis. Each zone has its own set of guidelines and penalties for non-compliance.
“The problem arises when organisations do not know exactly what set of regulations apply. This is compounded by the fact that some large projects straddle more than one administrative boundary,” says Halcrow International Partnership regional health and safety manager Peter Neville.
Neville suggests that in such cases, contractors resort to Abu Dhabi construction guidelines as a matter of good practice. However, in many cases contractors choose to simply ignore the regulations instead, according to not for- profit organisation Build Safe UAE assistant project manager Elias McGrath.
McGrath calls for a greater onsite presence from regulators and harsher penalties for non-compliance. “We need to see more regulators having a presence onsite and when penalties are imposed, they need to be made public. There’s no good in hiding which are the bad contractors because they’ll just carry their bad practice through to another zone,” he says.
In fact, both McGrath and Neville suggest that the UAE could learn from Bahrain’s ‘no tolerance’ approach to health and safety, after it was reported that the government in the Kingdom blacklisted and halted construction on 43 sites last year due to poor health and safety standards. “Blacklisting is one way forward that must be explored further. These are the actions that will make an impact and really be taken seriously,” asserts McGrath.
“Blacklisting sends out a clear and unequivocal message to the construction industry that poor standards of safety will not be tolerated,” adds Neville. Furthermore, Neville says severe penalties are one way of scaremongering the industry into best practice. “Penalties may be fines following a prosecution, contractual penalties or, of course, damage to a contractor’s reputation, delays to works while the accident is being investigated and loss of staff due to fatalities,” he explains.
However, Neville points out that this is not the only channel for increased awareness, with Build Safe promoting the cause and many of its membership organisations operating offices in other Middle East countries and actively spreading the word.
These large multinational companies are certainly in the powerful position of being able to increase competition and set benchmarks in health and safety for smaller, local companies to meet. This increases the overall standard and was highlighted as a key conclusion from February’s roundtable debate.
While Build Safe and the municipalities work on raising awareness for a safer working environment, McGrath says industry is required to take this knowledge on board and lead change. However, there needs to be more collaboration between industry, organisations and official regulators, suggests McGrath, who says that Build Safe does not receive full, public governmental support.
The Big Project contacted the Ministry of Labour UAE and Dubai Municipality to investigate whether the organizations would be interested in publicly working with Build Safe to promote health and safety standards.
The Ministry of Labour chose not to comment, but shortly after we had been in touch, McGrath informs us that the body contacted Build Safe to discuss further collaboration. Meanwhile, Dubai Municipality responded saying that it was still unclear about Build Safe’s legislative frame.
“Dubai Municipality widely supports [the] safety field and especially at construction sites,” says principal safety engineer Ahmed Khalil Abdulkareem, engineering supervision section, Building Department, Dubai Municipality. “The Building Department regularly maintains a link with small and big establishments working in the same field,” he adds.
McGrath points out that Dubai Silicon Oasis, a government authority, has been a full signatory member of Build Safe for more than one year and Build Safe claims to be receiving a positive response from the Ministry of Labour UAE and government agencies from the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. “We believe [these relationships] will continue to grow stronger as we begin to collaborate closer with them this year,” adds McGrath.
It looks as though part of this collaboration could include the establishment of EHS departments in other emirates following Al Ain’s lead and bringing industry that one step closer to establishing one regulatory body representing the UAE.
“Since Al Ain released its statement [announcing the EHS Department], I’ve had non-stop phone calls from Abu Dhabi Municipality wanting to come and see me, asking if it’s one of our projects. So it’s going to happen there as well, and of course we’ll welcome it,” said Aldar Properties head of health, safety, security and environment Andrew Broderick, who is also the Build Safe UAE spokesperson for Abu Dhabi.
Neville adds: “It’s never too early to establish an occupational health and safety regulatory body. With such an organisation in place, alongside the local provision of prescribed standards levels of awareness and general safety of working practice can only improve.