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PPE evolves to meet stricter GCC labour standards

Personal protective equipment manufacturers are optimistic about growth as enforcement standards are tightened in the UAE

Onsite PPE implementation requires diligence from contractors.
Onsite PPE implementation requires diligence from contractors.

Labour conditions have long-since represented a sensitive subject for the GCC. Amidst allegations of poor worker safety standards in Qatar, and a controversial levy on expat hiring in Saudi Arabia, the region is regularly engaged in debate over how best to encourage best practice within its construction sector.

It’s important to remember, however, that the question of safety standards, or the lack thereof, is a global issue. Modern Slavery: The Dark Side of Construction, published in July by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), highlights worker safety violations from around the world.

Citing the Development Viewpoint 80 report by India’s Centre for Development Policy and Research (SOAS), dated July 2014, CIOB’s report states that construction workers in the country’s capital, Delhi, “complained about work-related health problems. They wear no protection of any kind at work, yet face major health risks, such as pervasive dust particles and the constant danger of accidents.”

One might argue that effective personal protective equipment (PPE) is as important to the promotion of labour safety standards as the government codes designed to enforce its implementation. But at a broader scale, the value of PPE can also be measured in monetary terms.

According to Transparency Market Research’s Personal Protective Equipment Market Report, published in February 2015, the global PPE market was worth $33.9bn (AED124.5bn) in 2013. This figure is likely to reach $55.2bn (AED202.7bn) by 2020. Meanwhile, Technical Review ME predicts the market will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.3% between 2014 and 2020.

These figures offer a key insight into the Middle East’s PPE sector, where the deployment of protective gear often meets roadblocks such as a lack of diligence on the part of contractors, or workers’ failure to comply with worksite regulations.

Vivek Rajagopal, sales manager at Venus OHS, explains: “Given the nature of its operations, construction needs a complete head-to-toe range of PPE applications – from helmets to shoes, glasses, masks, overalls, and gloves.

“All these products find a healthy demand from the construction sector.”

For 25 years, Venus OHS has manufactured neck-up safety products, specialising in the field of respiratory protection. Rajagopal admits lack of adherence to PPE standards is a “challenge when it comes to the civil construction” sector, but adds that UAE authorities and companies are gradually developing training programmes to cultivate a culture of safety.

The participation of the private sector will play a vital role in the full implementation of PPE. Its importance is only likely to increase following the introduction of the UAE’s updated labour law, which will take effect in 2016.

The Standard Limited-Term Employment Contract, will come into force in the Emirates at the beginning of next year. One of its stipulations is that employers must cover the medical expenses for the treatment of an injured worker in a government medical centre until that worker has recovered, or is proven to have become disabled.

Under the terms of the law, financial assistance will also have to be provided by the employer following the injury.

Mohsin Iqbal, sales director at Workmaster MENA, says this legislation will not only increase employer accountability, but will also contribute to greater onsite diligence by contractors and sub-contractors overseeing labourers. Workmaster, headquartered in Hong Kong, produces worker uniforms, safety shoes, vests, and other related apparel for skilled and semi-skilled workers.

Speaking to Construction Week on the sidelines of The Big 5 2015, Iqbal said: “All industries have tier-one, tier-two, and tier-three companies, and the [latter] are typically more relaxed with their standards or practices.

“That is present in every industry and in every part of the world. The good thing about the Middle East is that there is more enforcement here than in, say, South Asia. The latter is a different landscape where the population base runs in billions [rather than] millions, and enforcement greatly depends on [this factor]. So you might find a labourer working with cement wearing only plastic slippers on some construction site, but that is more the exception than the rule,” Iqbal added.

Beyond enforcement, the PPE sector is in the midst of several transformative trends. As oil prices dwindle, demand for worker uniforms and safety equipment is expected to soften within the oil and gas and construction sectors.

Iqbal said his company’s strategy for 2016 includes expansion into wider markets, both horizontally and vertically.

“Tourism is driving the growth of businesses and services like cleaning in Dubai, with more facilities management firms now operating in the city,” he said.

“Be that office cleaning, residential, or skyscrapers, the number of cleaning firms is growing in the city.

“This is also being driven by the increasing amount of landscaping activities being carried out here.

“All of [these factors] are contributing to demand for worker equipment and gear in Dubai,” he continued.

Venus OHS’s Rajagopal adds: “We have not seen a drop in orders from the oil and gas sector so far.

“However, growth rates – that is, new accounts from this sector – have slowed somewhat,” he admits.

“From a UAE perspective, our 2016 strategy is to increase the focus on the oil and gas sector. From a Middle East and Africa outlook, we plan to establish a presence in new territories,” Rajagopal concludes.

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