The GCC has struggled with health and safety issues over the years, and suppliers have a role to play.
The GCC has struggled with health and safety issues over the years. As with all sections of the industry, suppliers have their role to play, as Jamie Stewart finds out.
Darryl Matthews and Terry Mason are in concrete. Not literally, you understand. This would make getting out of bed and making the journey to work in the morning a somewhat complicated task. But for eight and five years respectively, Matthews and Mason have been in GCC concrete.
During this time, the things they have seen have led both men to take very seriously the issue of health and safety (H&S), not just within the confines of their own concrete plant or on the building site itself, but all the way through the supply chain.
Health and Safety wasn't even spoken about five years ago.
Matthews is general manager at Readymix Gulf. Mason is commercial manager with the same company. Recently the firm, owned by France-based building supplies giant Lafarge Group, took part in the worldwide Lafarge Safety Month, an initiative aimed at raising awareness of H&S issues globally.
Despite the differences that exist in H&S legislation from country to country, any company operating under the Lafarge banner must adhere to European H&S standards, regardless of the country in which its operations take place.
Lafarge Group has interests spread across 76 countries worldwide. This broad base represents a huge difference in the accepted approach to H&S practices, but no longer for those firms under the Lafarge umbrella, to which the approach is universal.
As part of the initiative, Matthews and Mason were recently involved in a week of ongoing exercises across Dubai. "The concept was to raise awareness on health and safety. It's a continuous development program for us," says Matthews. "The week was geared towards our employees and their families, and we also invited customers and third party haulers to take part."
The dangers that were focused on included everything from cement trucks reversing onsite to protection against the heat and humidity of the Middle East environment.
The company management was out on site, conducting practical demonstrations, offering safe driving courses, and conducting relaxed, informal discussions in air-conditioned tents with the full participation of the labour force, on a raft of H&S issues.
Behind the relaxed approach, however, lies a very serious message. "There are no accident statistics produced here, so it's very difficult to quantify whether a year is good or bad, if you can call it that," says Matthews.
"But the general awareness of health and safety is definitely improving. We have seen an awful lot of progress, especially in the newer, larger developments. The H&S standards are much better, and improving."
Mason agreed and said that as far as he is concerned, the industry had no option but to get its act together.
"Things have improved. There's no doubt about that. H&S wasn't even spoken about five years ago. The problem today is that you have contractors coming in from all over the world.
"When contractors arrive here from elsewhere, they are used to different standards of work and everybody has different ideas. We need somebody to put it all together."
Though the municipality does set minimum safety requirements, Matthews says it is very much up to each individual contractor to impose its own standards on its own sites.
Both Mason and Matthews have adopted a hands-on policy to H&S. "Instead of hiding in here in the air conditioning we get out there, wander around and just watch," says Mason.
"We see things that we know are wrong, and try and put them right. If you have a truck driver who has just arrived in the country and is not aware of the health and safety standards, we will sit them down and try to explain what we expect from them and why we expect it. The classic example is them turning up in their flip-flops, because that's all they have ever worn."
Alok Varma is general manager of Assarain Concrete Products, a position he has held for six years. The firm is among the biggest concrete suppliers to the construction industry in Oman, with production hubs in Muscat and Sohar, employing around 500 staff. A third plant in Dubai is home to a further 250 staff.
The H&S issue in Oman is not far removed from the issue across the rest of the GCC, as Varma explains. "It is common knowledge that even if companies are aware of world standards in H&S, implementation has been an issue in the Middle East for many companies, including some leading names," he says.
"However, this gap is quickly being bridged because of increasing awareness, an improvement in communication channels, and management's realisation of its duty towards its workers."
Varma also cites government initiatives as playing their part. "One of the biggest contributors to the H&S improvements we have seen in Oman over recent years is controls introduced by the government. They have raised the bar of health and safety parameters for all companies," he says. "Nevertheless, many companies are improving the standards of H&S as well as the actual implementation of these standards.
In order to follow his own example, Varma has introduced a number of initiatives during his six years in Oman. "We have tried to lay as much emphasis as possible on H&S standards within the company and we have not recorded any accidents within the company premises as a result of this," Varma says.
Implementation has been an issue in the Middle East for many companies.
"We also have a close monitoring mechanism. Along with the initiatives we have introduced, I also manage by walking around at regular intervals to see the H&S issues within the company premises, if any."
At Readymix Gulf, both Matthews and Mason, to complement their hands-on approach, are prepared to do whatever they feel is necessary to ensure a safe working environment. As an indication of the seriousness with which both men confront the H&S issue, they have in the past turned their backs on substantial contracts.
"We've refused to deliver to sites because we didn't consider them safe," says Mason. "The last time this happened was about 18 months ago. It was a big contract, and within the first few weeks it became clear that the site was not safe.
"We tried warning the contractor that we were not coming back, but they didn't think there was anything wrong. We can't send our guys onto a hazardous site. Especially our pump operators, who have to go up onto the structure in question, because they are the ones in the most danger."
Matthews says that far from it being a difficult decision, walking away is something he would happily do again if necessary.
"It's an easy thing for us to do if it's unsafe. We're always happy to work with our customers to improve the safety on site. But if the contractor is not willing to work with us and we have deemed the environment to be unsafe, we are not going to put our own people at risk."
Mason heads for a spin around the Readymix Gulf plant. Ever watchful, he spots a driver topping up fuel from a can on-site, an operation which must be conducted off-site. He pulls over to offer the guilty party a word of advice.
It would appear that combating H&S violations is something of an ongoing challenge. It is easy to imagine Mason or Matthews on site, loud hailers in hand, spinning to the left, then to the right, then up, then down, shouting "You - stop that. You - don't do that. You - stop that - and that - and that. Take that off. Put that on. Less of that..."
As both men have explained however, their approach is very personable. Within the room where we meet, there is not a loud hailer in sight. Upholding H&S standards may seem like a thankless task now and again, but let's face facts; it is common knowledge that the GCC construction industry has not had a good H&S record over the years.
There is no way of knowing the precise effect that H&S initiatives have, because prevention is better than cure, and if somebody avoids having an accident due to good H&S practices, nobody notices, and life goes on as normal. You are never going to read the headline: "Ten construction workers not killed as roof doesn't collapse."
Still, H&S initiatives may mean a labourer or driver can go home to his family once his work is done, rather than becoming little more than a statistic that the government fails to keep. Therefore, whether we ever hear about those whose lives are saved or not, such initiatives throughout the supply chain are worth the effort of everybody concerned, a hundred times over.
"It's a constant challenge but safety on our side is one of the things that we can control," says Mason. "There are so many things that are beyond our control. It's nice to be able to do something where we are in control of our own destiny."