Does Saudi Arabia need a health and safety boot?

Health and safety is one of the most visible aspects on a construction site, and it isn't just for workers.

Husain Al Omani
Husain Al Omani

Husain Al Omani, business development manager for Vincotte International, independently conducted a survey for Construction Week on health and safety on residential construction sites in Saudi Arabia.

Health and safety, or the lack of it, is one of the most visible aspects on any construction site. And even though most high-profile projects in the UAE have begun taking health and safety seriously, some of our regional neighbours still drag their feet.

In summer with temperatures crossing 45 degrees celsius and 80% humidity in Saudi Arabia, Omani made residential construction sites in the kingdom his target. He visited 75 sites in three regions including the Eastern, Central and Western provinces.

The word safety isn't even heard in most parts in Saudi Arabia. - Husain Al Omani, business development manager, Vincotte International

Apart from physically going onsite to witness labourers at work first hand, Omani also used additional methods to quantify the survey, including a questionnaire, to gain general information about the company, equipment and tool safety, safety on site, accidents and safety organisations and a series of interviews with the Saudi Labour Office, general organisations for social insurance, construction workers and residents living next to construction sites.

From his onsite visits, Omani found most workers to be from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other Asian countries and some Arab workers from Egypt and Syria. Each site had from six to 10 workers.

Equipment and tool safety

"The word safety isn't even heard in most parts in Saudi Arabia," said Omani. "And most construction workers carry out their tasks without any background in safety. I saw many wrong practices that were hard to believe. And a small example was some workers who were working onsite without hard hats, safety shoes or gloves."

Omani quizzed some workers on why they worked without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and was told that the contractor did not provide them with any and due to their meager salaries they couldn't afford to buy it for themselves.

"Some workers even work without any sort of medical insurance," said Omani, whose survey is unrelated to his job as development manager for Vincotte.

Site safety

Health and safety isn't just for workers but also to ensure that the site is safe.

Job sites that are in congested areas of a city need to have a perimeter fence that do not have unguarded openings during working hours so unauthorised people don't enter the job site during work hours.

"The perimeter fence usually marks the boundary of the property," said Omani.

"It helps differentiate where the private and public lines begin and end. The purpose of a perimeter security fence is to slow down the intruder by adding another layer to restrict entry.

"Unfortunately, I found many sites without any perimeter and this causes many injures not just for the workers but also for the people who walk around."

According to Omani, 25 people, including pedestrians, died in 2006 in Makkah during the demolition of a building.

The site was without perimeters and many people who were in and around the area were crushed after the building collapsed on them.

Omani spoke to Abdul Hady Al Hawaj, a resident living close to a construction site in Qatef in the Eastern province.

Hawaj told Omani: "Our roads are like an (obstacle course) for us and our children who live around there because the workers are constantly throwing things like nails, pieces of steel and wood directly onto the road, which is outside the site.

"I've asked the contractor to prevent its workers from throw things but we've seen absolutely no change in their practices."

Omani recommended the establishment of a separate department with complete authority to enforce contractors and developers to comply with health and safety regulations and also to work in tandem with the ministry of labour to train workers about the basics of heath and safety.

He also suggested that the contractor and developer be held responsible for health and safety and that training centers should be set up which award certificates to workers which must be presented as a mandatory requirement in order to be able to work on a construction site.

Lastly, he feels that the Ministry of Rural and Municipal Affairs should enforce site safety on the contractor and monitor sites throughout the building process.

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