Shade seekers

As the mid-day break legilation comes to an end for another year, Peter Ward reports on the effect it has on MEP contractors and how much workers are benefiting from it's use.

ANALYSIS, Human Resource

As the mid-day break legilation comes to an end for another year, Peter Ward reports on the effect it has on MEP contractors and how much workers are benefiting from it's use.

Walking outside in the summer heat can be unpleasant for anybody in the Middle East, however picking up your tools and working at the peak of the hot season can be extremely dangerous. In the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar a mid-day break is enforced with the aim of getting construction workers out of the sunlight at the hottest times of the day to reduce health and safety risks.

In the UAE, from 12.30 to 3pm anyone working outside must be allowed time to rest and a place to get out of the sun. In Bahrain the law states that firms should allow from noon until 4pm for their employees working outside to rest.

Dr G Y Naroo of the Rashid Hospital Trauma Centre in Dubai explains how important this is for the workers: "With a patient who has heat stroke there is a very high mortality and morbidity [rate]; even for some who have recovered there is some sort of neurological damage."

Losing this amount of time in a day though can have a huge impact on projects and contractors have had to find a way of working with the banShift switching

One method in which contractors can avoid the issue is to switch shifts so that work is carried out either early in the morning or late at night. This means that no working hours are lost and the ban is respected. Rotary International contracts manager Martin Leath reveals: "We start early then take a mid-day break and make up the hours; that way the guys get a long break, but has it affected work? Not really."

The firm has only one project that has been affected by the break; staff on its other outdoor jobs have been put on nightshifts. Fellow contractor Drake & Scull also reports no negative impact on projects due to the mid-day break.

Quality, health, safety and environment manager Wael Salah explains: "We have been [operating] in this market for 40 plus years; our work programme takes into consideration any breaks and even emergency stoppages - it is already considered in our plans. We reschedule our timings to suit and need to increase our labourforce sometimes...but more or less it is not affecting our productivity."

Sensaire project director Alan Hart however, warns that the impact of the ban could be big, despite his firm being relatively unaffected: "If [a project] is just starting and you are exposed [to the direct sunlight] then it's going to have a massive impact [on programming]".

Company compliance

The percentage of companies in the UAE complying with the rule has increased over time. When it was first introduced in the UAE, 75% of companies in Abu Dhabi were found to be abiding by the law.

This year early figures from the Ministry of Labour suggested that this has risen to 99%. Statistics from other Emirates have also been encouraging: a Ministry official claimed in July that the number of companies in Sharjah complying with the regulations has hit 99.7%.

Hospitals in the UAE have been told to report any incidents of construction workers being admitted to hospital with heat-related illnesses during the time of the break.

However, this only applies for the period of the mid-day break and not long after it and there have been steady claims from hospitals that they are treating a large number of construction workers with heat-related illnesses.

Despite this, Naroo reveals that cases of heat-related illnesses are down this year: "For years during the peak summer time, in the peak of humidity, we always had many patients and maybe 30 or 40 patients every day.

But this year there have been very few patients." He adds that the reason for this is due to the "strict application" of laws such as the mid-day break by Dubai Municipality this year.

In 2007, by the end of the ban 617 companies in the UAE had been caught with employees working outdoors. This year inspections have been carried out, although some firms have yet to encounter them.

"I don't honestly know of any of our sites that have had visits," reports Hart. Those sites seen as "easy targets" may be seeing the most inspections, he adds: "If they can be seen from the road then [the inspectors] go in...hey seem to be picking on those because they are softer targets."

Break facilities

MEP contractors working exclusively indoors are not affected by the regulations as, no matter how hot it may be indoors as well, the law does not specify that workers in the shade need to be protected. However, contractors with work underway outdoors must either change their working times or provide facilities for their workers to shelter from the sun.

In the majority of cases sending workers home for the break is not an option as Hart states: "Because of the logistics of the traffic you could just never get them back to the labour camps in time. By the time you have got them there, it would be time for them to come back [to the site]."

For some MEP contractors the level of facilities provided to workers appears to be reliant on the developers and main contractors. Mostafa explains: "In some projects we don't receive a good area from the developer or the main contractor to make offices, so we are trying to make a shaded area as is the regulation. We are trying to provide fans, cool water, first aid kits and a place [the workers] can feel comfortable, so they can sleep for a short time."

A large proportion of the workers use the time to sleep, therefore a comfortable, shaded area can be important. At one point everyone in the region has seen a construction worker asleep on a hard, hot pavement.

Hart explains how Sensaire tackles the problem: "There are covered areas, we are laying on water, lemon barley, salt and lemon. Where the rest areas are, [the workers are provided with] 48-inch diameter fans to keep them cool so they can sleep."

He adds that a first aid room, recovery room and a rest bed are available on Sensaire operated sites, as well as re-hydration ingredients.

A balance of salt and sugar is crucial to workers when they are in the heat as Naroo explains: "[Companies] need more awareness in terms of the intake of fluid. Some of the small firms in particular don't provide the patients we come across are coming in with heat cramps, which is [a result of] an imbalance between water and salt in the body."

This occurs when workers are drinking more water but not taking in enough salt to balance their bodily functions.

One method of coping with the climate that Rotary uses is to hire workers that have experience in the region. Leath explains: "Most of the guys we have here [have worked] long-term in the Middle East.

We select our people for that reason and when it comes to this time of the year they know what to do: they know to take extra water and make sure they get a good breakfast in the morning with plenty of sugar and plenty of salt."

This method is a move in the right direction agrees Naroo who states: "Once you bring workers who are not acclimatised to the climate, they should not be made to work the same number of hours the next day, even if there is a break."

While it appears that the problem of overheated workers is now declining, the issue of the mid-day break seems set to remain in the spotlight in forthcoming summers.

This will ensure that standards don't drop and lives are not unnecessarily lost. For contractors, the mid-day break can be a potential hindrance to their project schedules, however without it the amount of work lost through illness and exhaustion could cause a much sharper dent in their programs.

Mid-day break in brief

The mid-day break legislation is enforced from 1 June until 31 August inclusive each year. It applies at different times in each individual area:

• UAE - 12.30-3pm: workers operating under direct sunlight are not allowed to work during these times daily and should be provided with a shaded area and a place to rest.

• Qatar - 11.30am-3pm: no work is allowed outside at all in between these times and no more than five hours work is allowed in the mornings.

• Bahrain - 12-4 pm: Bahrain has the longest work ban in the Middle East and also faces the most opposition from firms eager not to lose working time.

In the UAE the punishment for breaking the law becomes harsher the more times a company is found guilty:

• First offence: firms can be fined up to US$2,700 (AED10,000) and have some activities suspended for up to three months;

• Second offence: companies can have their work licences suspended for at least six months and be fined up to US $5,444 (AED20,000);

• Third offence: third-time offenders can have their licence suspended for a year and be given a fine of up to US$8,166 (AED30, 000).

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