The Big Project met four experts from leading developers and consultants at Radisson Blu Dubai Media City to discuss what the government and industry are really doing to tackle health and safety issues in the Middle East construction sector
How do health and safety standards in the Middle East industry compare to standards in the rest of the world, based on your experience?
ANDREW BRODERICK: There are excellent world-class sites and there are awful sites. Similarly you have fantastic international contractors that are doing a great job; they’ve got established health and safety cultures and are working to policies they were working to in the countries they were based.
On the other hand, there are bad standards where people have been brought up in a country that does not have an ingrained health and safety culture, so it is important that you then educate those people.
KARL SIMONS: Globalisation is coming into it. An international contractor — no matter where they’re working — will work by the same standards; certainly when the company is linked to shareholders because a major catastrophe could impact on share value. However, local contractors need to remain competitive and as standards around them are gradually increasing, they say ‘why can’t we do that’. And we’ve seen local contractors across the Middle East reviewing their standards.
How far has globalisation forced the region to progress over the years?
MOAWIA HIMMO: I’ve seen a difference in the UAE from 15 to 20 years ago. It’s going in the right direction, but it all comes down to money. For a contractor to comply with standards it will cost them and therefore someone needs to monitor that the company is complying with its obligations. Unless you put it as legislation it is not going to get done.
Is adequate health and safety legislation in place in the GCC?
KS: Legislation comes from contractors and consultants initially implementing procedures; the government watches and says ‘that’s good, we’ll implement that as law’. Industry will always lead legislation. Bodies such as Build Safe and the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) represented by safety practitioners will advise the government on where to implement legislation so employers understand their responsibilities. The most significant action the government took in the UAE was to stop labourers working in midday sun.
AB: Legislation is helping the situation in Abu Dhabi. There are codes of practice for organisations to understand what their responsibilities are. The municipality has implemented these codes of practice on designers, consultants and contractors. International Building Codes are scheduled to be implemented in the first quarter of this year. There needs to be one standard in place. If you take fire codes, for example, some people are using American regulations and others are using British codes.
MH: I don’t think legislation is the saviour of the industry. Consultants and contractors should be guided by the contract, the contract should adhere to legislation and this must be enforced by the government.
Are the industry’s big players and the regional governments pro-active in enforcing existing legislation?
AB: It’s extremely important that the government and large organizations back health and safety initiatives. When Build Safe asked me to become its Abu Dhabi spokesperson, I accepted and the CEO of Aldar loved the idea so Aldar became the first developer in the UAE to sign up to Build Safe.
It worked a treat for us because when we organised and sponsored the official signing ceremony, word spread quickly around Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE, and people who worked for us wanted to join. So immediately every contractor and consultant working on our projects chose to abide by the codes set by Build Safe.
KS: That shows the influence big organisations have over the industry. They’re one of the most important factors in influencing the health and safety culture.
MH: There are still some clients that need to be educated; it’s not just the workforce. Developers from all over the world have settled in the GCC in the last five years.
KS: For me, organisations that see health and safety as something that bolts onto the side aren’t taking the welfare of their people seriously. Good safety is good business. A lot of organizations have realised that now, and they are doing things the right way.
AB: Just this month in Al Ain, the government has really stepped up health and safety having just employed Atkins to establish a regulatory Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) Department for the Building and Construction Sector.
It was reported that 43 construction sites in Bahrain were blacklisted last year by the government for bad health and safety practice; is the government as pro-active in other regions?
AB: I haven’t heard of any sites being blacklisted in Abu Dhabi.
KS: I haven’t seen any blacklisted in Oman either. Bahrain has developed and implemented legislation and it has empowered a group of inspectors to be able to blacklist sites. Closing down 43 projects goes a long way towards expressing its zero tolerance. It’s a huge step that is welcomed by the industry.
Can other governments learn from Bahrain’s no-tolerance approach?
ALISTAIR MITCHELL: Some contractors are more than capable of policing safety themselves and most projects will have ran themselves well to date, but some won’t because of the teams and those are the projects that need auditing.
KS: I believe that the governments in other GCC countries needs to employ the right threat. If the threat is real, organisations will take it seriously.
If organisations take it seriously, competitive tendering for companies that offer standards that comply with health and safety requirements will follow. This means that the cheapest price will no longer do the job.
AB: No developer wants their site closed.
KS: Or to be publicly acknowledged as a project that has had this huge incident.
What are the implications of non-compliance; can that lead to circumstances such as the newly-built, eight-storey building collapsing in Deira at the end of last year?
AB: That’s a number of people’s fault.
MH: Blame extends from design phases through to building phases.
AM: There are often lasting implications as well, for example in Abu Dhabi, where there was a huge fire on an Al Reem Island project two months ago and work has still not started again.
So what is the cost-effective solution to achieving a safer working environment?
AB: We’re trying to educate contractors that safety does not mean money. We have to show them they may have to buy new, safer scaffolding, for example, but we can prove that providing this also makes easy access, a good platform where they can work safely and in doing so, they will also work quicker so production will increase. It’s about educating contractors that a safe site is a productive site and one that works to schedule.
MH: It’s true that production can be faster, but still some contractors go ahead without these safety precautions and complete the job without these expenses. However, if accidents do happen on site it will slow work down and have a massive impact on the company’s reputation.
KS: Implementing health and safety onsite doesn’t necessarily have to be a massive investment; it’s about the process and construction sequence. The high-profile jobs like Burj Khalifa are so important, prestigious, complex or technically difficult that it’s normally the big, international contractors that are on the tender list. These contractors have that health and safety culture and bring it to the Middle East. There are numerous small, local subcontractors and contractors from other parts of the world and they get dragged up with big contractors’ policies, they have to comply with them onsite.
MH: Generally 80-90% of the labour workforce is from overseas and it’s not in their minds to be health and safety conscious. They’re often ignorant and negligent to those standards.
KS: I wouldn’t say the workforce is ignorant. Labourers are predominantly from India and their first language is Hindi. Many have no levels of literacy; we reckon 60% can’t read or write. Their social upbringing means that we should take ownership and accountability to educate these people properly onsite through hazard awareness.
Is the necessary training currently available in this region?
AB: When I started working with Aldar, we only had a few operational projects, but I noticed the training companies contractors were using were awful. I looked at 100 training companies and chose one from Northern Ireland, built them a training facility and made it the preferred trainer. The company offered its services across Aldar projects and we were reassured the companies we were working with were properly trained.
KS: There are many good training organisations currently operating in this region, which are aimed at project leaders and deliver training in English. The issue comes when you step towards operative level and training has to be delivered in the employee’s own language, so a lot of contractors bring this level of training in-house.
Is it a challenge for contractors to deliver training at operator level in-house?
KS: The people at supervisory level are the link in the chain between westernised expat leadership teams and the labour workforce, and these guys speak English, Hindi and Punjabi. If we channel education properly through these trained supervisors it can have a huge impact on morale and production.
MH: But still in some Middle East countries people are working at high levels unsupervised and not wearing a harness and it’s overlooked.
AM: The workforce just needs the correct supervision. In my culture the mantra is that we’re all responsible for each other’s safety, if you see anything on site not being done properly you report it; you can’t just walk by.
Here, contractors do educate their workforce, they have safety talks, instruct how to use safety harnesses properly — all those things — but you need to supervise as well. There has to be more emphasis on safety teams here. On Burj Khalifa, the main contractor’s safety team could be identified immediately; they’d have red hats on and would patrol the site all day to keep the guys on their toes.
MH: The contractor needs to delegate authority and enough power to the safety officers.
What health and safety precautions can be taken from the early stages?
KS: Consultants and design teams can have a huge effect during preconstruction. The client does not need to have an in-depth understanding of construction; they need confident consultants, good designers and project management teams to identify and mitigate risks the contractor would otherwise face during construction.
AM: You have to be able to work closely with contractors and the right standards need to be outlined in contracts and any documents upfront at the beginning of a development.
Can you give an example of how risks can be minimised through design?
KS: A major cause of concern in the regional industry is working at height. Many consultants and contractors are not asserting collective methods of control, such as active-edge protection.
Defaulting to putting people in harnesses is considering you’re allowing the person to fall in the first place rather than protecting the edges of the building. As consultants and designers we look at how we can minimise risks from the beginning.
AM: I was speaking to a cladding engineer recently — he was doing a presentation for some cladding on a new building — they’d done the bracketing for the cladding on the slab as opposed to the edge of the slab and when asked why, he explained it was so that someone doesn’t have to lean off the edge of the slab when putting the brackets in place. It’s a very simple element but brilliant because that process will have to be done thousands of times on the project and you’ve taken away the risk with a small detail.
KS: It takes a handful of committed individuals with a passion for educating the industry. Permission from the government is also needed to set up an organisation such as Build Safe. As it grows you organise the conferences and the monthly meetings and you start to build up momentum.
So what is the first step needed in moving the industry forward?
MH: The construction boom meant this area went crazy after 2005, within 10 years thousands of towers had popped up like mushrooms. It was a matter of supply and demand and the level of demand on construction was 10 times more than the capability of the good contractors so the less-qualified and cheaper contractors would be used.
AM: The marketplace has slowed and there will be a saner pace of growth in the future, hopefully allowing people to stand back and look at health and safety practices right from design phases, and good practice will be given the time it deserves. Setting a sensible timeline for a project is important.
AB: The driver for legislation should be related to educational compliance so all companies adopt correct systems; prosecution should be an afterthought for if companies fail to comply.
KS: It is on the agenda and each Gulf state government body is starting to introduce legislation that challenges status quo and will drive performance and improvement. It would certainly be nice to see the same standards enforced right across the Gulf.