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Safety circus

Onsite safety has a poor reputation in the region

Onsite safety has a poor reputation in the region, with accidents unreported and a wide-spread belief that regulation is non-existent. Yet a number of initiatives coming into effect aim to change the perception of the outside world and restore the reputation of one of the most significant construction markets

To the rest of the world, the UAE is renowned for having the best of everything; from seven-star hotels to record breaking towers and man-made islands; whatever the country can’t achieve first it emulates with world-class style, as demonstrated by the construction of Abu Dhabi’s very own Louvre, the ‘leaning’ Capital Gate tower and Guggenheim Museum.

But in the eyes of the world, such developments raise concerns as well as eyebrows. Every now and then, the press carries a leaked report about an injury or fatality onsite, caused by faulty scaffolds or falling materials.

No public call has been made for the release of official data since the end of 2008, when then Build Safe UAE chairman Grahame McCaig, called on Dubai Municipality to release statistics on serious injuries and fatalities onsite.

The most significant development since has been the launch of Abu Dhabi’s environment, health and safety management system (EHSMS) which began to gain pace last year. Aimed at transforming both working conditions and the country’s reputation for delivering nothing other than “world-class”, the regulations were developed to unify the standards implemented by the companies who come to operate in the UAE from around the world.

In February 2010, The Big Project reported the implementation of the regulations, developed in conjunction with design and engineering company Atkins. First approved by the executive council of Abu Dhabi in 2006, the legislation is enshrined in ‘decree 42’, a 2009 directive from the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and chairman of the executive council, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Over the last year, the authority has developed regulatory framework and training course materials, and appointed an inspectorate and other EHS department staff (see box).

Atkins is responsible for the recruitment and training of inspectors and their support staff, the establishment of the IT systems which will register entities and produce reports, and the development of the enforcement strategy under the supervision of the municipality.

“The Emirate of Abu Dhabi has taken the bold step of leading the way, not just in the UAE but the whole region, in order to assist contractors and others to develop construction site EHS management systems that will safeguard people and the environment,” Atkins’ project director Dr Abdullatif Merii says.

Ongoing issues

Although the EHSMS is a positive step on the municipality’s part, it will not immediately tackle the underlying issues which currently contribute to poor safety standards.

“Legislation in the UAE has progressed leaps and bounds and it is right up there with the rest of the world. I think the local legislation is sufficient; it is the compliance thereof by companies that is still a problem, especially the smaller construction companies,” says Stephen Van Wyngaard, group HSA manager for Al Shafar General Contracting (ASGC).

“When you drive through the UAE and look at construction sites you can clearly see which companies are serious about health and safety and those are not, just by looking at the existing conditions,” Van Wyngaard adds.

This disjointed approach, not only between different construction companies, but also between authorities, continues to threaten the success of legislation.

“The biggest problem in the region is that it’s populated by companies from all over the world, each bringing different standards from their own countries,” observes chartered health and safety practitioner, Wasyl Terych, who currently holds the post of assistant general manager with consultancy ETA ASCON.

“Consequently if these countries are a little backward in their approach to occupational health and safety, those standards are then transferred here. As an extremely crude example, Chinese standards vary a lot from those in Europe and America,” Terych adds.

Donald Turley, head of construction at international law firm Taylor Wessing, says one stakeholder counted 170 different pieces of legislation, regulations, orders and guidelines, covering health and safety in the UAE, commenting that there are “differences in applicable legislation in each emirate”.

“There is no one piece of legislation, either at a federal or local level that deals specifically with health and safety. Instead, there are numerous laws that touch upon health and safety in one way or another, although often in very general terms and without specifying any technical requirements or standards of compliance,” Turley explains.

Until the introduction of the EHSMS, the most well known of these was the UAE labour law, supplemented by a Ministerial Decision in 1982, which specifically concentrated on the construction industry.

“The general nature of these provisions limits its practical use in setting and enforcing standards on construction sites in the country,” Turley adds.

“Lack of education is a contributing factor but accidents are simply a management failure”

Moving forward

The aim for 2011 is that the framework “will be implemented and compliance monitored, with an integrated approach to encompass all elements that will contribute to the minimisation of hazards and risk to the environment and the health and safety of both workers and the community.”

Yet, according to official literature from the municipality, entities — contractors, engineers, developers and managers — will be nominated to enforce a compliant EHSMS, even though the enforcement procedure is yet to be finalised.

Commenting on the system Noura Saeed al Nuiami, project manager of the Al Ain Municipality, said: “There are accidents but there were no reports kept on accidents so nobody knew about them; major or minor.

“Nobody cared about the health of workers, about the environment; whether for example a building will affect the environment or not, nobody was concerned about these issues and before there were no systems to regulate the safety [of buildings or workers].”

Commenting on the response from the industry to date, Nuiami adds feedback has been positive.

“They are so happy. This is a developing country and as part of Vision 2030 we are planning to be one of the top five governments in the

world, so this will help us to reach that point. “The system is about the work place, workers

and the impact on the environment either adverse or negative. It’s also about the health of workers within the construction sites,” she adds.

Orders from the top

Last month, the Municipality of Abu Dhabi called on construction, contracting and consultancy firms to fully comply with the applicable HSE standards in the emirate, “in keeping with the best global practices”.

Almost 500 delegates at an HSE applications workshop, held by Abu Dhabi Municipality last month, heard Engineer Abdul Aziz Zurub, director of heath, safety and environment, threaten the industry with “warnings, suspensions and fines”, for non-compliance.

“The municipality has put in place an inspection mechanism applicable at building and construction sites with a view to developing a sequenced approach for inspection processes, right from the beginning of inspection through to the enforceable actions,” Zurub stated.

“Inspection campaigns and regular visits will continue for all building and construction sites using mobile inspection teams,” he added.

Terych confirms that improvements are being made, particularly in relation to the availability of information and guidance, the cooperation of enforcing authorities and initiatives surrounding summer working and accommodation standards.

Having spent his career specialising in health and safety standards for companies as diverse as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Al Ghurair Foods, Terych now inspects client premises, reporting on the proper and improper use of scaffolding, in addition to training.

In gaining this experience, he has come to see a common pattern in the transfer of health and safety awareness.

Having surveyed more than 300 universities for a project in a previous role, Terych says he found no health and safety modules in any MBA curriculum, confirming a widespread lack of education — not among the workforce, but at a senior management level.

“What is this? The people with these MBA qualifications are the best in their field. They learn about HR, economics, media relations, IT and financial management, but their most valuable asset — their workers and importantly their health and safety — is not on the radar.”

Van Wyngaard says the process is one which is ongoing, in order to ensure workers understand not only the legislation or site rules, but why they have to adopt safer practices.

“The reason for enforcing safety rules is to protect people from harm and no other reason. We have to change attitudes and behaviour towards health and safety and this has to come with the support of top management or it will never be successful,” he asserts.

“Top and middle management have to lead by example and the labour force will follow suit. If a worker understands the reason for wearing safety shoes for example, he is more likely to comply than forcing him to wear them. The safety department’s leading role in my opinion, is on the job training on a daily basis,” Van Wyngaard adds.

“We have to take a step back and talk about people, human nature and attitude. Why do they do what they do?”

Terych says his field experience confirms the responsibilities of management.

“Lack of education is a contributing factor but accidents are simply a management failure. I am not saying the manager is wrong, how can he be if he has never been taught certain topics, but it is still a management failure.”

His observations are echoed by Aldar’s Andrew Broderick, director of EHSS, sustainability and CSR.

“The same as anywhere else in the world, the primary issue is leadership,” he comments.

“The single most influential person on a construction site for effective health and safety management is the project manager. They have the resources to manage and implement health and safety on site and the safety officer can provide guidance on how this is to be done.

“Many talk about unskilled staff here in the UAE, if this is the case then the project manager must ensure his staff are trained, knowledgeable and understand the hazards associated with the task at hand,” he adds.

Occupational approach

While the provision of health and safety initiatives and their implementation requires a top down approach, it also requires a more holistic approach towards occupational health; monitoring welfare beyond physical injury.

The EHSMS directives account for environmental wellbeing and the safety of finished buildings in addition to on-site safety, yet Terych says the mental wellbeing of the workforce is an equally important element which is too often ignored.

“We have to take a step back and talk about people, human nature and attitude. Why do they do what they do? In occupational health and safety, one has to understand why people behave in an unsafe way if the awareness of occupational health issues is not there,” he says.

Referring to fatality investigations he conducted in Sri Lanka and other countries, Terych says he has observed a lack of managerial-level skills and confidence in approaching workers who show symptoms of stress.

“Top and middle management have to lead by example and the labour force will follow suit”

“We all feel sorry for the people whose injuries we can see but what about the people with bad lungs, defective hearing or mental illnesses caused by the work that they do?

“Such factors are fundamental to understanding health and safety in the work place and these are the management skills needed to be able to recognise problems before they arise, or to better identify them when they are present before they become a more serious problem.”

Catching up

The UAE has experienced a rapid rate of growth over the last two decades, and cynics could say the implementation of enforced regulations at this stage is too little too late. While it isn’t the only legislation in place, the promotion of such a wide reaching programme could also reattract investment to the country.

“Programmes such as the Abu Dhabi EHSMS are coming to the fore now and there are many good initiatives also coming through in Dubai and these have to be commended. I have been in the UAE for seven years have seen many great initiatives come into effect,” Terych recalls.

The UAE is in a unique position; as a relatively new country, at least in the physical sense it is able to learn from the best practice standards of other countries and use these to formulate a working standard, with penalties for non-compliance.

“There is not one country standing alone as the leader in health and safety legislation,” says Van Wyngaard.

“Every area like Europe, American, South Africa and so on, has its own legislation, which is based on international standards. They are more or less the same and if you follow the international standards you are definitely rubbing shoulders with the best of them.

“The construction industry in the UAE is right on par with the rest regarding legislation for health and safety,” Van Wyngaard adds.

“A very positive change is taking place in Abu Dhabi,” says Broderick.

“The EHSMS, from what I have seen so far, is very well organised and very well managed. For the development of the industry, all companies working on our behalf must have in place an Abu Dhabi Municipality approved EHSMS and a construction permit will only be released when this takes place,” he adds

“The Abu Dhabi Municipality will then visit Aldar sites to ensure the EHSMS is being implemented and the department will take action against those not conforming.

“This is very much welcomed by Aldar and is another line of monitoring and enforcing contractors to provide a safe place of work.”

Commenting that there are different time scales emerging for a full roll-out of wide-reaching standards, Terych says it could be a further three years before a comprehensive system is in place in Dubai, but he also comments that such pace is still “definite progress”.

“With the two very forward thinking emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi vying with each other to excel in the health and safety standards, other emirates in the UAE are poised to emulate the experience.

“Things are moving ahead with pace and structure and I think we are probably three to four years away from something really superb, something towards even what those countries who feel that they are developed could look towards as providing leading examples,” Terych adds.

“There is a mind set in the UAE whereby if something is needed, the governments make it happen. That has to be really appreciated and respected.”

One year on: the Abu Dhabi ehsms

Significant developments over the last 12 months

  • Development of the building and construction sector EHSMS regulatory framework
  • Successful launch seminar and workshops
  • Development and launch of the EHSMS website and regulatory authority reporting system portal
  • Recruitment of EHS department staff
  • Development of training course materials
  • Site inspections are conducted throughout Al Ain City region
  • Development of the building and construction sector EHSMS department core processes
  • Development of the EHSMS marketing plan
  • Successful EHSMS workshops carried out in all departments of the Al Ain Municipality
  • Scholarship program finalised and launched
  • Rewards programme for employees developed
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