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Improving safety on UAE construction sites

by CW Guest Columnist on Apr 29, 2017

KeeLIne lifeline system provides fall arrest and restraint protection where guardrails are not suitable.
KeeLIne lifeline system provides fall arrest and restraint protection where guardrails are not suitable.

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With a breakneck rate of development in the construction sector in the Gulf in the early 2000s, safety was at times a second thought. That has changed significantly, however, in recent years. Rebecca Kelly, a lawyer with the firm Morgan Lewis, has extensive experience in health, safety, and environment (HSE), and has been practicing in the GCC for more than 12 years. She says that she has seen a “substantial decrease in the number of accidents and fatalities” from the period when she first arrived.

No doubt the smaller number of active projects and companies operating is one factor, but perhaps the biggest impact has been from new regulations prescribing safety requirements for construction sites, which were issued in 2008 in Dubai and in 2009 in Abu Dhabi. While in other high-risk sectors there are specialised regulations that are industry- and UAE-wide, construction is still regulated at an emirate level, she explains.

“There are no reported figures, but I, myself, have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of fatalities on construction sites as a result of [these regulations],” Kelly states.

Many international construction firms that operate in the Gulf tend to rely on an international best practices approach, using their safety guidelines and procedures developed in their home market, such as the UK or Australia, to meet the local requirements in the Gulf. With HSE regulations all having the same purpose – that of protecting workers – best practices from mature markets overseas are likely to be consistent with regulations in the UAE, and are more likely to complement the existing regime, says Kelly, who works with many construction companies to ensure that they comply with regulations, especially in terms of incident protocols and site management. “Most construction companies don’t ask questions about how not to comply. They always ask ‘How do we comply?’, and, at the heart of it, ‘How do we protect our workers?’” she says.

Non-compliance with safety regulations is a serious matter, especially if there is a fatal accident on-site. Then the authorities – typically the public prosecutor – will try to establish who is to be held responsible. In the case of a fatal accident, a finding of negligence can result in a prison sentence of up to five years. It is this prospect of criminal consequences for not following safety regulations that is the biggest deterrent to failing to comply with safety regulations, believes Kelly. Criminal negligence may fall on an individual worker, such as a crane operator, or – if there are not correct operating procedures on-site – on management, normally the general manager, who is, in effect, responsible for the entire site.

In the aftermath of an accident – even a freak accident that is not the result of negligence – what is most important is that companies can demonstrate the have complied with the law. “In those situations, the general behaviour of the workers, day in and day out, knowing what the safety obligations were, knowing what to do even in the immediate aftermath of an accident, really is key to helping the public prosecutor understand what happened on the site,” says Kelly. In effect,  this means that in the case of a similar freak accident occurring on two different sites, one where the rules are being followed and another where the rules are not, workers and/or supervisors on the non-compliant site are more likely to be found responsible.

Apart from the accident itself, the business costs can include stoppage of work, and then involvement in an investigation that can last several years, during which key witnesses will have to be interviewed over an extensive period of time, and even surrender their passports. To prevent accidents, “HSE should not only be the responsibility of the contractor, it should be the responsibility of every single person that walks on to a construction site,” says Kelly.

Daniel Griffiths, the general manager of Kee Safety LLC, which provides personal and collective protection equipment, believes that there has been an increased focus in the past 18 months in the UAE, and especially Dubai, on ensuring work sites are safe. With falls from height the biggest killer on construction sites, and things falling from height on to people below the second biggest killer, Kee Safety offers products that include life lines, parapets or guard-rails, temporary edge protection, and rooftop walkways. Griffiths believes it’s better to employ collective protection systems that remove the human error element. For example, while lifelines are very good, as personal protection equipment they must be clipped on manually. By contrast, with a guard rail, “You don’t need to clip it on, and it protects you from falling over the edge,” says Griffiths.

The difficulties of ensuring a safe work site in the GCC can be amplified by a diverse labour force speaking different languages and with different cultural ideas about safety. Griffiths says that the company uses videos in its on-site training that highlight how the system operates and how it should work. “We use those videos to overcome that language barrier – it is a very good way of doing that,” he says.

Salman Abdulla is executive vice president of Health, Safety, Sustainability, Environment, and Quality at Emirates Global Aluminium (EGA), a company that is routinely lauded for its levels of safety, both according to regional and international benchmarks. In his 30 years with his company, Abdulla says that the biggest change he has seen has been the evolution of safety from being just top-down to something that everyone is involved in.

“We have given line employees the opportunity to speak up about everything – from what has caused them difficulties, to which policy or procedure should be improved,” says Abdulla.

“By doing that, we make them feel appreciated and respected, but also our safety performance is going to be a lot stronger if we have 7,000 people working on it rather than just a few at the top.”