The construction industry has experienced fundamental changes over the past couple of years as a result of increasing trade liberalization, globalization and internationalism. With these changes come demands from the owners of large construction projects and the EHS community for contractors to perform more efficiently and safely.
In a global environment where no uniformly accepted international safety and health standards currently exist, it is extremely difficult for construction contractors to ensure that they create workplaces that are safe for their workers.
For a number years, the UAE government and others in the Middle East have taken the health and safety of construction workers seriously. According to recent reports, the Middle East construction industry is projected to deliver projects worth USD $500 billion by 2015. This influx also is expected to lead to an increased investment in EHS products and services to help ensure safety in the work environment and to drive down operational costs.
“We are seeing an influx of construction projects worldwide, and in the Middle East the key countries are UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Along with this increase comes the growing concern for more HSE standards that can assure the safety and security of workers on site,” said John Warner, category manager, Intumescent Coatings, Jotun Coatings.
This boom in construction projects has lead to a boom in something else: work-related injuries. A recent study by the UAE University found that around two-thirds of hospital visits involved injuries incurred on building sites and that a lack of PPE or inappropriate PPE were associated with the incident that caused the injury.
EHS professionals working in the Middle East need to concern themselves with more that just jobsite hazards. Climate plays a huge role in the use – or lack of use – of PPE. Due to the temperature levels, the UAE’s Ministry of Labour last May announced that it would extend the ban on midday site work in the country for an extra 1-3 hours between June 15 and Sept. 15, an initiative followed by Saudi Arabia.
Construction Projects in the UAE
The UAE has undergone a construction boom in the last 5 years and projects that previously had suffered during the recession are starting to resume. The construction sector in Dubai is considered one of the key sources of employment, income and growth for Dubai. With the unprecedented growth in the UAE’s construction and property sector, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are observing the highest increase in the number of construction projects. Dubai in particular has seen a major boom in the construction and property sector, making it a hub for some of the world’s biggest construction companies.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia currently has a 38 percent share of the total construction projects in the UAE and is expected to receive contracts worth $86 billion in 2011, according to a newly released report, “GCC Gulf Cooperation Council Powers of Construction 2010” by Deloitte Middle East. Recent construction projects include Jumeirah Gardens City, which has a budget of approximately $95 billion and is expected to house 60,000 residents by 2024.
Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate in the UAE, covering most of its territory. Discovery of oil and gas transformed this emirate into one of the world’s richest locations. The wealth derived from oil and gas resources has been poured into major investments aimed at spurring and maintaining development in this emirate. The property and construction sector has received the largest chunk of total investments, indicating that this sector is a priority in this emirate. It is estimated that the government will spend about $200 billion on the new infrastructure and development projects in the next 5 years. Major projects include Yas Island, a $39 billion project, and Masdar City Project, a highly anticipated zero-carbon city that has been allocated a budget of $22 billion.
“We are seeing an influx of construction projects worldwide, and in the Middle East the key countries are UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”
–John Warner, Jotun Coatings
More Construction = Need for EHS Focus
Traditionally, PPE has been judged against very basic criteria: Does it protect the worker and is it functional enough to allow them to effectively do their jobs? But there are other issues that require careful consideration: comfort, style and wearability. If construction workers aren’t happy with the PPE they have been issued – because it’s uncomfortable, feels unsafe or slows productivity – then they are less likely to wear it. This dramatically increases the probability of injuries and illnesses.
Different occupational safety and health regulations vary from one emirate to the next, making for confusion. With workers traveling to projects throughout the UAE, and companies from all around the world working in the area, the enforcement of appropriate PPE can be difficult to monitor. Speaking to Emirates Business, Peter Barnett Schuster of IOSH said the municipalities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have an impressive set of clear, concise guidelines and safety codes that are mandatory at all worksites, while work-related legislation at the higher (federal-type) level does not go into any details.
Schuster said it would be easier for companies to be under one safety body. In Dubai, for example, there are several regulatory authorities. Legislative requirements vary from project to project and what applies on one project does not apply to another.
EHS managers are responsible for ensuring all construction workers comply with a variety of regulations. For example, high-visibility clothing should adhere to EN 471, and work wear to protect against heat and flames should meet EN ISO 11612:2008. For outside workers, such as builders, cleaners and gardeners, UV Standard 801 – the international test for protection against sunlight – also should be taken into account.
When choosing which types of PPE are needed for a particular job or work environment, it always is advisable to work closely with various suppliers and manufacturers to work out which types of clothing and particular products will be the most suitable. All products that meet the minimum health and safety requirements will include the European Union’s mark of conformity – CE – which is a good starting point.
Cultural issues also need to be taken into consideration when choosing and purchasing PPE. It is important for EHS managers working in the Middle East to encourage the purchase and use of PPE that is adaptable depending in the culture and geographic location of the region in which the construction project takes place.
“[An] excellent understanding of the technical and managerial issues [in the Middle East] is fundamental to technical health, safety and environmental (HSE) situations that the health and safety manager would work in,” says Steve Currie, Middle East recruitment consultant at Allen & York, which specializes in EHS recruitment.
Enforcement in the Middle East
There is no statutory body in the UAE to oversee EHS and ensure appropriate PPE is used. Among its many roles, the Ministry of Labour officially is the authority charged with enforcing most health and safety laws. In reality, however, it is the police who investigate accidents on construction sites and decide whether anyone should be prosecuted. Aside from the fact that they have little or no training for investigating such accidents, involving the police introduces a criminal aspect from the outset, often resulting in a defensive, rather than a co-operative, response.
Abu Dhabi’s code of practice, although of limited legal force, recognizes that a preventative approach likely will be more effective than a punitive one. It focuses on issuing improvement and prohibition notices before a potentially fatal accident occurs.
The UAE has a two-tier system: federal law, which applies to all seven emirates, and local laws, which are confined to the emirate in which they are enacted. No single piece of federal legislation specifically is dedicated to health and safety within construction.
There are various laws that address aspects of health and safety, albeit in general terms. The labor law, which oversees the rights of employees, includes guidelines on PPE, first aid and medical facilities.
For example Ministerial decision 32, enacted in 1982, outlined provisions in the labor law for the construction industry, but it did not provide technical requirements or standards that could be used to assess whether an entity is in compliance. Similarly, while the penal code deals with acts or omissions causing personal injury or death, the provisions are not specific to health and safety or construction. They equally could apply to someone causing a death by driving dangerously.
The new code of practice for construction projects introduces detailed obligations for on-site health and safety, including training, reporting procedures and safety engineers.
So far, however, it has not been enacted into law. This means not only that it cannot be reliably enforced through the courts, but that those involved in construction in Abu Dhabi have limited knowledge of its existence.
In the absence of a government body like OSHA in the United States or the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, companies in the UAE have formed a partnership to share information on health and safety risks and best practice. Created in October 2007, Build Safe UAE (BSU), as the partnership is known, now has 88 membership organizations
Despite the lack of comprehensive health and safety statistics for the Gulf region, there is a clear consensus that safety on construction sites is improving. According to Build Safe UAE – the only organization in the region that collects and analyses site safety statistics – there has been a marked improvement in safety in the UAE between 2008 and 2009.
“The UAE is the area of the Middle East that is making bounds forward in terms of health and safety,” says Peter Neville, health and safety manager in the Middle East for consultant Halcrow, which is a member of Build Safe UAE. “It has more legislation in place, which works to protect those both on and off site.”
The protection of construction workers is a human right that employers need to consider, even if regulations do not hold them accountable for workplace safety and health. PPE that is appropriate to the region and the work is essential, and issues related to culture and the scope of work need to be considered, regardless of the lack of regulations.
Vicky Kenrick is part of the international health and safety recruitment consultancy, Allen & York, which specializes in EHS recruitment within the Middle East.