Forming a safe work space

The formwork industry is currently wrestling with some tricky problems; economic, logistical, communication and health and safety issues.

ANALYSIS, Human Resource

Economic fluctuations and ongoing logistical hurdles continue to dog the formwork industry, while concerns over safety and communication between the various players involved in construction remain at the forefront of the sector.

The recent spate of incidents at Dubai Marina, which saw seven Indian workers killed following an incident on the Al Sufouh network project, and a scaffolding collapse at the end of November, which saw two killed and a further three injured, has prompted those operating in the industry to place even greater scrutiny on sites in which their materials and staff operate.

The communication in the construction industry is not very good. The different players involved in the execution of any project hardly communicate with each other. Communication across the lines does not exist.

Geir Jensen, general manager, Doka Gulf, believes this is again a prominent issue, which must be faced: "At the moment, there is nothing negative affecting Doka, however, after the recent news about scaffolding collapses, my concerns about site safety are getting more serious.

"I feel that the suppliers as well as the contractors have to be more aware of the safety aspects when using temporary products for the execution of the jobs. It doesn't help to deliver safe products if they are not handled in a safe way," he adds. To offset this Jensen says safe execution must be considered and the aim is to design formwork systems in a way that minimises the risk of misuse or negligence, backed up by regular visits by supervisors' onsite.

These concerns are yet to have any real detrimental impact on the market, however. Doka is stretched across numerous areas of the Middle East, with subsidiaries in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

Within Dubai itself, the company is capitalising on its experience of working on the Burj Dubai by pursuing work on the coveted Al Burj tower, which is earmarked to be taller than the current record-holder. "Doka has made a technical study on how to execute the project," says Jensen. "From a formwork point of view it is technically possible and we have a solution on how to reach the desired working cycle. Based on our Burj Dubai experience we can estimate the consequences and the requirements for the execution
quite accurately."

But actually engaging with the client or contractor is another area where formwork is notably poor. "The communication in the construction industry is not very good. The different players involved in the execution of any project hardly communicate with each other. All the sub-contractors and suppliers deal directly with the main contractor. Communication across the lines - between the players - does not exist," Jensen says.

According to Hans Rau, managing director of Peri Middle East, a proactive attempt to communicate is laudable but inherently difficult. "It is important to have frequent communication. We visit our customers as often as possible to see how things are and what additional help we can offer. Most of the time the customers on site are very busy as they have to deal with all the suppliers and people working on site at once. Getting hold of them is sometimes the most challenging part, which is followed by them having the time to communicate with you."

Jensen adds: "I'm convinced that we could all save time and money as well as working much safer if we could coordinate our work better."

And Raul Garcia, general manager, Ulma formworks highlights a further area where the benefits of communication could be keenly felt: "There is another important aspect where companies like Ulma could help the consultants and contractors in some projects to reduce the execution time of their concrete structure, and that is to adapt the design of the structure, as far as possible, to the appropriate formwork materials available. This is more relevant for projects where a very short execution time is required."

Daniel Taylor, area representative, Aluma, however, draws attention to the ongoing problem of forgeries in the market. "We hope to continue highlighting the dangers that come with formwork forgeries, especially in light of an industry which is trying hard to bring safety to the forefront," he says. "Of course, there will always be cheap copies available in the market because there will always be some contractors seeking the cheapest possible solution, regardless of quality, safety, or the standard of engineering support.

"I think that the majority of the good contractors in this market recognize that you get what you pay for, and are willing to pay the asking price of legitimate suppliers in order to develop efficient and mutually beneficial working relationships. I also believe that the good contracting companies will always respect IP rights as well as international trademarks as one of their core company policies."

Financially, however, market forces are also proving to influence formwork specialists, with the weak dollar prompting accelerated inflation and the exchange rate between the dirham and Euro affected with the Euro very strong, says Rau. And Jensen concurs: "The development of the Euro over the last year has, of course, had a negative impact on our pricing. Just now we are looking at the development of the dirham/dollar to see the influence of the Euro. This, for sure will affect our business over the next year."

"The exchange rate of the Euro to the dollar is affecting us a lot because we receive our materials from Europe," agrees Garcia. "This will force us to increase our prices soon. On the other hand, the big competition existing in this market favours the contractors, and the combination of both factors will be an issue to face in the coming months."

Garcia adds that the short turnaround times presents a strong challenge in itself: "Many of our customers tend to choose a supplier at the very last moment, leaving us with a short reaction time for completing the deliveries on time. But Ulma accepts this is a feature of the market. Another issue is the difficulty to introduce systems in the market that will reduce the labour cost. These systems are usually more expensive, but this is a minor disadvantage compared to their higher performance."

Rau also points to a less noted but equally frustrating aspect for Peri in the UAE at present, and that is the tenacity required to extract money from clients, which, he says takes an awful lot of effort. Consequently, Peri has been forced to withhold material to make its point. "We stopped delivering to non-paying clients as this is sometimes the only way to make a point," he says.

On top of this, Peri is still faced with a lack of skilled engineers in the UAE, which are in great demand to be able to cope with the fast-growing market and all the projects that are running and coming up. As a result, the company has intensified its recruitment system, which enables it to find suitable employees.

At present, Peri is involved in a number of projects in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, including the Etihad Towers and Al Aryam Tower in Abu Dhabi, and Dubai Motor City and Mirdif City Centre in Dubai.

But issues aside, there have been some notable practical advancements being made over recent months. Accurately calculating and predicting the pressure that poured concrete will exert on the formwork used is one of the most important tasks when planning on-site concrete works. Assured knowledge of the expected loads will enable the site to choose the best building technique and the appropriate technical equipment.

Methods of calculating concrete pressure used until now, do not take the new concrete types into account and cannot be safely used when pouring them. Yet, with architectural structures becoming slimmer and finer and fair-faced concrete finish increasing in demand, it is precisely this new type of concrete that is being used increasingly. The uncertainty about the chemical interaction between additives and their possible influence on the hydration process and final setting is immense.

Self-compacting concrete, used on different geometries to pour into heavily reinforced, slim structures, exert higher pressures on the formwork. Drawing on lab experiments, a general rule of thumb says hydrostatic pressure determines the load capacity of the formwork, which veered on the safe side, but means formwork was often set up for too heavy a load.

Such a lack of understanding, could inevitably lead to safety concerns on site, as it is imperative to know what kind of pressure the concrete poured will exert. As a consequence Meva engineers were pivotal in updating the existing DIN standard 18218 to include numerous concrete consistencies and developing appropriately simple methods of safely calculating concrete pressure.

The revised standard takes into account the increasing use of self-compacting and flowable concrete mixture on today's building sites. It enables the site to safely determine the concrete load to be expected and thus choosing the appropriate formwork to handle it, leading to a two-fold advantage; assuming too much concrete pressure would be a waste of money and material, and assuming too low a concrete pressure could endanger the safety of everyone onsite.

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