Tackling the issue

The rise in construction-related deaths is not a problem specific to Dubai.

Safety in mind: The UK is planning free English language courses for foreign workers.
Safety in mind: The UK is planning free English language courses for foreign workers.

There's a tendency to look towards how things have been done in traditional markets when it comes to comparing construction standards; whether that be the style or quality of a building, or, more importantly, health and safety.

But the steady rise in the number of construction-related accidents and deaths across all markets - whether emerging or mature - is an indicator that the UAE is not alone in facing health and safety issues.

When it comes to revising its own law, the UAE shouldn't look for something that's 'perfect'

Figures released in 2007 from the International Labour Office show that there are 60,000 fatal site accidents worldwide each year, equating to an economic loss of 4% of global GDP.

And the problems that have come hand-in-hand with the expedience of growth in this region are now being felt in Europe.

Construction deaths in the UK in particular, once thought to have reached a 'reasonable level', have risen in the last few years.

Some have put this down to a growing foreign workforce. With the exodus of workers from Eastern Europe to the country, construction companies are grappling with getting a workforce of diverse languages, cultures and skills up to speed with health and safety standards which have undergone numerous stages of modification and refinement over the years.

So much so, the UK government recently announced plans to offer free English language courses to Polish workers.

Others say that UK law has become too 'prescriptive', and while the industry generally does what the law stipulates, a large part of it is lacking in self-regulation, with many companies failing to set up good occupational management systems.

But the thing that singles the UAE out from the rest of the world is that in terms of the complexity and scale of projects underway and planned, it is probably the biggest and most interesting construction site in the world, and whatever happens to those projects - good or bad - will attract attention.

The introduction of an upgraded health and safety law along with an independent agency to govern site inspections is one thing, but a lot more will be needed from the industry itself if standards are to be improved.

"The argument in the UK is that legislation has become too prescriptive," said Ray Hurst, president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).

"It has to move away from this and should be based on risk assessment and self-regulation. While it has its advantages in that at least employers know what they should or shouldn't be doing, there needs to be more focus on setting up good management systems.

"When it comes to revising its own law, the UAE shouldn't look for something that's 'perfect' from the start - any regulation will need to be reviewed, audited and adjusted. It's about putting people first - you could have all the systems and regulations in the world, but unless you get the industry behind you then you're not going to get anywhere.

As a way of assessing the skills and language ability of foreign workers coming into the country, the UK Construction Industry Training Board is planning to introduce a pre-qualification system.

"I don't know whether that will happen in the Middle East - but certainly some level of qualification to identify language and other trade skills before people come to a country are important." added Hurst.

Wayne Harris, general manager of corporate health and safety, the Design Group, Nakheel, agreed that communicating health and safety to a culturally diverse workforce is one of the industry's most pressing challenges.

Nakheel recently announced its new training school, which will extend the property developer's in-house training programme to contractors.

The language expertise among trainers working at the school includes Arabic, Hindu and Urdu. "When you have different nationalities and cultures, there are different understandings of risk, but this is something you have to work with," said Harris. "But if you understand culture and different nationalities, then you can control the risk."

There are no doubt thousands of construction companies around the world who have felt the financial brunt of failing to comply with or maintain health and safety standards.

The other impact is a dent in reputation and perception among end-users of a building associated with accidents and deaths.

But the most damaging cost is undoubtedly the human one, added Hurst.

Hurst joined IOSH in 1978 with personal experience of the devastating effect neglecting health and safety can have: his father lost both of his legs in an industrial accident. "No amount of compensation can make up for the effect it has on people and their families," he said. "And it's not just about 'falls from height'; subtle things like exposure to hazardous chemicals are as much of a concern.

"Everybody has a part to play - I think it's up to every main contractor to ensure the subcontractors have those competent health and safety advisors and that they are following good systems.

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Construction Week - Issue 767
Sep 01, 2020