Taking safety to a higher level
With towers being erected at a phenomenal pace, Hugo Berger takes a look at the trouble formwork firms are having in promoting their safety measures for working at height.
Few can deny that the pace of building work in the GCC is astounding.
Because of the express speed of construction, using quality formwork techniques is imperative.
Yet a number of formwork specialists in the city insist that often the desire to spend less on formwork is both damaging the quality of the build and putting the safety of labourers in jeopardy.
Recent statistics show that 75% of all deaths on construction sites last year were caused by objects or people falling from buildings.
In high-rise projects, as the formwork generally takes place on the top few floors, it is important to do as much as possible to prevent anything falling from the higher levels.
As the safety standards become an increasingly important factor in any project, a Dubai-based company is leading the way in the field.
Combisafe provides a fall prevention system using a special mesh which fits all the formwork systems which are on the market.
The system performs to European standards and can support the weight of falling bodies, equipment or building materials.
Bruce Shahibi, general manager, Combisafe Gulf, says there are difficulties in persuading contractors to adopt the system.
"There are a lot of new systems coming onto the market from various parts of the globe - it could be Spain, Canada, Malaysia - they come with various safety components, some of which are incomplete or inappropriate for this market and conditions," he says.
"The contractor is partly to blame because they don't ask about such features in detail from the supplier.
What they end up with is a safety system that is half finished, and then we are contracted to rectify that.
"So we need the cooperation of the formwork supplier as well as the contractor, and in most cases the formwork supplier has already done the sale and has little interest.
Shahibi adds that a recent survey of customers found that if an object does fall from a height, it is generally from formworking.
"If contractors want to improve safety records then improving safety at the formwork level is definitely an area they need to concentrate on.
"And if all of our customers are saying that formwork from the top two or three floors is a major risk, obviously you need to stop objects falling.
"To prevent something falling you need a much better protection system than a pair of steel cubes or a timber guard rail.
Shahibi believes that formwork companies could improve safety by providing better training for the contractor they are delivering to.
He says: "With some of the new systems almost the formwork suppliers provide technical service but they don't provide a site training service.
"The end-user is often not trained on how they should use it, which creates a problem with productivity but also with safety.
"If you not aware of the correct sequence of dismantling and re-erecting and the safe methods of doing the same, it can be dangerous." He adds that firms should learn from Europe, where the formwork designer is required to complete a risk assessment before the contract is signed.
"Based on this, the site manager will train the workforce on how it will be recycled and what the risks involved are so they can take action.
The formwork companies that have been here a while supply that, but I think that the contractors should also demand this from the new players in the market over here.
"The end-user needs better training based on the designer's risk assessment."
Although many of the bigger contractors follow this model, some of the smaller ones were less stringent, adds Shahibi.
"There are various panel systems which are on the market, but with some of these there is a risk the panel on the edge might slip and fall off.
"That needs to be highlighted to the contractor and as a designer they would be aware of such risks and say an action needs to be taken.
"But because of the speed and because the well-established suppliers are too busy, new players are coming in and they don't always play by the rules.
"They don't provide the service that the contractors deserve and at the end of the day they have given a promise to the contractors that the formwork will perform in a certain way, but if you don't train the workforce to highlight the risks involved, you don't keep that promise.
The Combisafe system has been used on more than 40 towers in the Jumeirah Lake area, the tallest of which is the 65-storey Al Mas Tower.
All of these sites saw a drastic reduction in the number of accidents.
Its effectiveness was highlighted recently at a project in Ras Al-Khaimah when a formwork labourer fell five floors and only suffered minor injuries.
Another company which makes safety issues a paramount is Spanish firm ULMA Formworks.
The firm is the third biggest formwork suppliers in the world, but has only been operating in Dubai for two years.
Raul Garcia, general manager, ULMA Formworks UAE, said the company is doing a brisk trade in the city, but was still trying to overcome a reticence to spend extra money on quality formwork.
"Here, one dirham is very important to many people, so the main factor is the price, whereas sometimes safety and quality come second," he says.
"In Europe, the price is important, but not always the first thing.
Out here there are divisions, like in football, and we are number three in the world in terms of product and range.
"But over here, contractors don't always put a value on this so even if you are the very best in the world they will not always buy from you.
"We are trying to show to the contractors that it is better to go for safety and performance of the product because it will be better in the long run."
ULMA sells a wide range of products, including both vertical and horizontal formworks.
One of the firm's most popular ranges is the ORMA modular formwork, which uses panels to ensure that it can be erected quickly and then repeatedly reused.
Raul says that because of this it saves time for labourers, as well as improves their safety.
"Safety is very important to us, because we are used to working in Europe where safety is more important.
But over here, the price of the formwork, if all the safety elements are put in place is double," he said.
"Over here they are not forced to put safety measures in place too much, which leads to more accidents - although I am sure it will change with time.
Projects on which ULMA's formwork has been used include the 85-storey Torch Tower in Dubai Marina, three of the Burj view towers in the Burj Dubai development and the Dubai Metro.
Garcia also believes that safety and efficiency could be improved with better planning by contractors.
"One of the main issues is that the contractors give us a very short time to deliver the materials and we have the materials, whereas other times we have to bring them from the factories," he adds.
"The moulds you pour concretes in, the client sometimes wants a huge amount in a very short time which means we don't have enough for another client.
"It is a problem we have all over the world, but mainly it is a bigger problem here.
And he agreed with Shahibi that by spending a bit extra on formwork it can lead to a shorter build time.
"Some products that we have are very good and fast, with a good performance but they are more expensive," he says.
"Some contractors are happy to try new things, but some others are reticent to try new things as they look first at the price.
"They see the price and decide to stop there, but I think the change will come and people will eventually realise that spending a bit more on formwork saves money.
So as faster construction and fewer accidents leads to less costs, high-quality formwork and improved safety standards could save money in the long-term.