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Pushing safety up the agenda

Abdulla Ali Makki offers his thoughts on Bahrain's safety record


The head of occupational health and safety for Bahrain’s Labour Ministry, Abdulla Ali Makki, sits down with Bahrain editor Benjamin Millington to offer his candid thoughts on the Kingdom’s safety record.

When there is an accident due to contractors putting employees in unsafe working conditions, what are the penalties?
The problem here is that in our labour laws the amount of penalties is not fair. It is not fair at all, because you are talking about a BHD50 to BHD300 (US $132 – $796) maximum penalty. This was fair enough during the 1970’s when it was introduced but now it is not.

So if a worker dies as a result of poor health and safety the maximum penalty the contractor will face is a BHD300 fine per worker?
Yes, this is the law of labour, but at the same time the employer will have to pay compensation for the labourer as well. Two cases will go to the court. The Gosi (General Organisation for Social Insurance) can charge him on their decision and the contractor will have to pay more in terms of insurance.

Should there be a jail sentence for criminal breeches?
There is nothing for these types of crimes. This is one of the biggest vague areas in the labour law for the time being because they will not deal with an accident as a criminal case. If a contractor knows they are not complying with safety laws and there is a high risk to allow people to go up dangerous scaffolding and the labourer could be killed, then this is criminal.

These penalties should be reviewed and this is one of our proposals that the health and safety subcommittee is raising with the labour minister. We are trying to put more details into our  health and safety laws – more orders, more articles and harsher penalties.

Is part of the problem the low-skill level of expat labourers?
This is a problem. People in other countries have a better safety culture than Asian people. Because our labour is coming from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, they will accept to work at heights with poor scaffolding, maybe even with wooden ones like they do in their home countries.

Is the Bahraini government willing to be transparent with workplace accident figures and information?
We have a lot of transparency about this situation because, from my side, I need support from the outside. When there is a fatality the newspapers and other authorities will judge you and this is considered as a pressure from outside for our countries to speed up safety proposals. This is also true for international declarations on human rights.

As a country you cannot have support from certain international bodies without complying with their declarations. For this we must have basic foundation or national agenda for safety, this is one major issue, you have to prepare and comply with international laws. If not in 2009, within the next four years we will have it because of the international pressure.

What are the work place accident statistics for 2008?
I am putting together a full report on all recorded workplace accidents. I will give you this report when it is finished. I can tell you that 37 workers died in accidents last year. If you look at the UK and US we have 10% more construction worker deaths in Bahrain.

Do you think construction companies need to have more transparency when accidents occur?
They don’t have this culture; the transparency you’re talking about will not happen with these construction companies. Most of them don’t have proper safety measures. They try to comply with the laws on the paper and employ one safety officer but they won’t have the proper qualification. We don’t have in our orders what is the minimum qualification he should have.

Is that going to change?
Yes, of course, it has already changed, but it is not proper training to fit construction. For the time being we consider Nebosh as a minimum qualification because this is a UK standard of safety training, but it needs to be more. For a general idea about safety this is ok, but for construction he has to have special training for scaffolding, for firefighting, things like this.

In the future we hope to train safety officers based on their task and inspectors will request proper training. If you supervise chemicals then you must have chemical training and inspectors will ask to see documents.

Local media reports have said the government is looking to establish a national occupational health and safety body?
We have a supreme committee for occupational health and safety and they are now reviewing the final proposal to set up a National Occupational Health and Safety Authority. We discussed it with the minister about one year ago and hopefully we will submit the final proposal to the minister during 2009.

What kind of responsibilities would this entity have?
A lot of things. Now within our ministry we cannot take care of all responsibilities related to safety and health, we cannot do any research for the time being because we don’t have the resources. We also don’t have any clear statistics because we don’t have any real record outside of serious injuries and fatalities. We have about 20% of the records that Gosi have for compensation claims.

If we set up a centralised authority with shared services then we can use these statistics to develop a strategic safety plan, otherwise how do we know if safety is improving — this is one issue. Another issue is, that for the time being there is a lot of overlapping between ministries and government organisations.

In our section we have eight inspectors, the Minsitry of Health and Diseases has around four inspectors and Environment Ministry has their own inspectors.  This should be organised and centralised and all parties should have a certain procedure for inspection to stop repetition from different inspectors.

Will this new body help improve construction safety?
Yes, because once you have correct statistics that means you can show improvement to your inspectors and you will know what training and development you need to provide to the employers and their workers. We will also improve the qualifications of our inspectors because we want to develop expert people in different occupational areas, including people dedicated to construction and trained in specific things like chemical handling, crane operation and scaffolding.

Now what we have are only general inspectors – we don’t have the resources to train them in specific areas; we cannot achieve this now.

Will Bahrain be the first country to organise a central organisation for safety?
This proposal was presented everywhere in the GCC at many conferences as a paper and I think other countries in GCC will apply it before us maybe.

Because they have a more healthy political situation and are more serious to have such a decision and such improvement, maybe they will apply it before Bahrain – I don’t know. But if I talk about the legislation levels then I can assure you that Bahrain is leading this part because there is a new ministerial order related to safety every three or four years. In total we now have around 30 ministerial orders and other countries in GCC such as Oman and Qatar collect these and call them the new national agenda, taking our orders for guidance.

Do you think worker safety will improve in Bahrain over the coming years?
Yes, definitely. A part of this also is during our pilot project during summer. Since 2007 there has been one ministerial order for a work ban during peak period in summer from 12pm to 4pm. Before the ban was introduced we would get between 12 to 18 cases (deaths) during this period because workers at heights with heat-stress would fall.

In 2007 we only reported four cases. In 2008 we started a safety awareness campaign to go parallel with the heat ban with around 12 or 13 weekly workshops on different sites. I think this made a big difference because this year we had zero record of fatalities, before the work ban there was one case and directly after that period, cases started again.

That’s why this year we are planning to have a good awareness campaign throughout 2009. We will have a lot of guidance for scaffold drivers and any safety related issues through monthly awareness programs which never happened before.

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