Out of Danger

Neha Bhatia explores the case for labour education as a preventive solution against the dangers of flouting on-site safety standards

Labour education is required to protect workers against the dangers of flouting on-site procedures

Sharjah’s Al Mamzar area, early in February 2014, was the unfortunate setting for a tragedy involing an Indian labourer.  According to local daily Gulf News, the labourer passed after losing his balance off an under-construction building in the area.  “The labourer was not wearing a safety helmet which led to a severe head injury and loss of life,” said a police official to the daily.

Earlier, in January 2014, a report by The National had said health experts found construction labourers to be suffering ‘horrific’ injuries due to a lack of adherence to safety measures; these injuries included ‘nails embedded in the socket, chemical burns to the retina and hooks in the eye’, most often caused because the labourers in question did not wear the mandatory safety goggles on-site. Another report by the same publication mentioned the passing of two workers in Sharjah – a police spokesman had said at the
time that the workers, employed to clean diesel tanks, entered the containers without appropriate safety measures. While four men were trapped in the tank, only two survived the incident, and were reportedly undergoing treatment at a local hospital.

Unfortunately, these are far from the only construction accidents the country has seen of late; fire mishaps and building crashes have accounted for the high number of lives and material lost in UAE since the year began, and each incident makes a compelling case for the study of labour safety and precautionary measures.

“Talking about safety is not a matter of technology, it’s also about a matter of processes for our industry,” Thibault Le Besnerais, global product manager for Manitowoc’s Potain Cranes told Big Project ME.  “We’re in an industry where lack of safety can have tragic consequences.

“Safety is not only a feature, but also a culture,” Besnerais added.

Often, it is the lack of this understanding that causes the labour accidents the industry has become a witness to. The UAE’s labourforce includes representation from various nationalities; almost 2.2 million Indians account for UAE’s workforce, in addition to 1.25 million Pakistanis, 500,000 Bangladeshis, and another million workers from other Asian countries, as per a report by The National. Not all expat workers in the UAE speak the same – or even similar – languages, nor may they fully comprehend the occupational hazards their job brings with it.

Most companies undertake a myriad of training programmes aimed at reducing these cultural barriers and fostering a sense of inherent precaution in labourer groups.  Ivano Forcina, quality manager at Salcef explains his company’s policies regarding new in-house labourers. “We usually begin with an induction programme, which is broadly divided into a range of topics that impart knowledge about overall, basic safety measures, besides other specific issues.

“The programmes may be indoor discussions and presentations, and are frequently supplemented with audio-visual aids.

“As contractors for the rail industry, it also becomes essential for us to teach our workforce about the nitty-gritties of the job. Therefore, we cover specific topics that are strictly pertinent to rail operations and track construction, mostly roping in a lot of on-site training facilities here,” Forcina adds.

Forcina’s colleague, Melchor Realingo explains the need to invest in labourer education. “Most labourers who find their way into UAE’s construction sites are uneducated,” says Realingo, safety manager at Salcef SPA. “It then becomes our responsibility to ensure we observe each labourer and study their weaknesses and interests to understand which activity would be best suited for them.

“The labourers who repeatedly ignore safety measures are sent for retraining programmes, but that is a long-term process. Companies cannot inject adherence in the labourers’ mindset in a day, week or month.

“The ultimate aim is to increase and elevate the workforce’s behavioural safety standards – the change of habits required for that takes time to achieve,” Realingo explains.

It has been argued in the past that the lack of a unified regulation that can cater to on-site safety standards across the UAE hurts the construction industry. While regulations are created and sharpened by local municipalities in each emirate, their plurality often confuses contractors who work on numerous, parallel projects in different emirates.

Decree 42 of 2009 by the Abu Dhabi Municipality paved the way for the creation of the Environment, Health and Safety Management System (EHSMS), a regulatory framework that ‘aims to protect the environment and human health, ensuring the safety of workers’. Realingo says he follows the directives of this code when dealing with worker safety. A report by The National claims that this decree states that labourers, depending on their job specialty, must wear safety equipment at all times.  These include a safety harness, safety goggles, a helmet, construction site appropriate footwear and protective gloves.

Understandably, the issue is of importance on the national level as well.  Dr Ali Salem, director of health and safety for the UAE’s Ministry of Labour, in conversation with Big Project ME, reveals his take on worker safety and its enhancement in the country.  A trained medical doctor himself, Dr Salem knows what can go wrong on a construction site, and the drastic aftereffects of flouting the safety measures in place.

“To understand occupational medical injuries from a medical perspective there is a burden on me to learn more about safety. When we go to construction and industrial sites, we need basic information on the diverse aspects of construction, such as powered access and scaffolding.

“This is part of our partnership with the private sector and we are glad they initiated the approach,” Dr Salem adds.

Nevertheless, challenges persist where worker safety and sustenance is concerned – repeat offenders endanger not only their own lives, but also of their co-workers and the project they are working on. Realingo, however, makes a case for such non-compliant labourers.

“Firing is not the solution. As a company, you are only cutting the risk then, not the root (of the problem),” says Realingo. “Labourers, like all employees, are a good investment. It is the practitioner’s duty to view them as an investment she/he can educate, work on and hone. Managements carry the onus of learning more about their workers and educating them to imbibe better skills.”

“As a manager or supervisor, you may be providing them with appropriately required PE (protective equipment); but if it is of poor quality or cannot be reused, that is your fault, not theirs,” argues Realingo.

Companies also carry the burden of ensuring third-party inspections are given due attention. As Dr Salem explains, a major challenge for him is ensuring there are enough inspectors on the ground.  “It’s not easy. There are around 25 inspectors, so it’s really difficult to cover (construction sites) everywhere. We have to put on priorities.

“You won’t see us as much in DIP or DIFC as they would in Al Quoz. Most of our resources are working in Sharjah – the largest industrial area in the Middle East,” he adds.

Undoubtedly, there is scope for growth of safety standards in the region. As the UAE heads into a period of unparalleled construction activity, contractors and regulatory bodies will have to work inclusively with their labourers to ensure that building in the country equates to zero-losses and minimal hazards.


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