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Room for improvement in Saudi's HSE sector

Examining the case of health and safety standards in the Kingdom.

Michael Moore, operations director, UGL Services, KSA.
Michael Moore, operations director, UGL Services, KSA.

We’ve all seen the comedy photos; the guy on the top rung of a step ladder located in the hotel swimming pool, the ‘manager’ with hands in pockets without PPE, etc. I was never quite sure whether or not these images were staged for training purposes until I started working in Saudi Arabia.

For the past two years, I have been involved in delivering transition management services to an iconic building currently under construction in Jeddah, which is where I took a photo of three construction workers chatting away without any safety gear, on the edge of a 10m high ‘zip up’ scaffold. In many ways the image typifies the attitude towards H&S in the construction industry where, the perception is that labour is cheap and appears to be expendable.

Moving towards operational handover, we started to become involved in H&S management, using terms such as ‘risk assessment’, ‘method statement’ and ‘permit to work’ only to be met by blank looks and the inevitable, “We have never had an accident in the last seven years so why do we need to provide this now?” Perhaps even more worrying is that senior members of the consultancy and client team were excusing the main contractor, stating, “They can’t give you what they don’t have.”

Since I first came to Saudi Arabia, perhaps four years ago, I have seen huge advances made in so many areas - education for the nationals, availability of quality healthcare and of course, the much welcomed ‘feminisation’ of the workplace - so why does H&S still lag so far behind? Why do so many huge, even international companies have so little regard for their workers?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that all ‘blue collar’ workers are expats mostly from the Asian sub-continent. If Saudi nationals formed a significant part of the manual labour workforce, perhaps I would be writing a very different article.

Another contributory factor is undoubtedly the continued use of illegal ‘street workers’, like the gentleman practicing his balance skill on top of a narrow concrete beam. These guys are literally hired off the streets to undertake all manner of manual, often dangerous tasks, for extremely little reward.

Given their status as ‘ghosts workers’ they have no right to complain, no right to seek compensation and no right to medical treatment if and when, an injury occurs due to lack of knowledge, and no access to PPE or suitable training and equipment.

Back to Jeddah, where our quest for a professional approach to H&S management achieved this result: a series of copied notices fixed throughout the building, announcing spot fines for labourers caught wearing open-toed sandals.
You know what they say - ‘the longest journey starts with a single step’ even if it’s in an open-toed sandal.

About the author

Michael Moore, is operations director at UGL Services, KSA.

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Construction Week - Issue 764
May 31, 2020