Taking precautions

15 October 2004
Business is booming for construction companies in the Gulf. Underpinned by sustained high oil prices, a surge in liquidity has triggered unprecedented levels of investment in the region's built environment. From Doha to Sohar, from Jeddah to Jubail, gleaming new buildings, huge housing developments and ultra-modern infrastructure are changing the face of GCC states beyond recognition. And the most overheated of all hotspots is Dubai, where developers are falling over each other to unveil the latest and greatest new development.

But the boom is coming at a price. Until now, the concerns of most construction companies have focused on the sharp rise in the cost of materials, particularly those for cement and reinforcement steel. Other contractors warn of a growing skills shortage. But in late September a new shadow fell on the booming industry - the threat of falling safety standards.

Five construction workers were killed and 23 injured on 27 September when a wall under construction collapsed at Dubai International Airport (DIA). The labourers, most of them Asian, died when the reinforcement cage of a 40-metre-long section of the 14-metre-high wall on which they were working collapsed after being hit by a crane.

The accident took place on the $540 million contract in the DIA $4,200 million expansion programme. The contractor on the project is the local/UK Al-Naboodah Laing O'Rourke. Work was immediately stopped and accident investigations were launched by both the contractor and the government. However, neither has been willing to give any other comment on the incident. And the incident is not an isolated one. Local contractors say that many accidents pass unreported in the emirate.

Many in the industry say it was inevitable that there would be a major construction accident sooner or later. Construction is a dangerous business even in the best conditions, and the conditions on building sites in booming Dubai are far from ideal.

'The main issue is unrealistic schedules,' says a safety manager for one Dubai-based contractor. 'All the jobs are fast-track jobs. There are many accidents being caused because of this. They are not all as big as the accident at the airport but there are many, and the root cause is the pressure from the client to meet tight programmes.'

The regional safety director of a leading international construction management firm says similar pressures can be found across the region. 'The pressure is all from clients,' he says. 'In the US or Europe the authorities can and do come in and close a site down if it is not safe. Employees can complain. None of that exists here. It is down to the contractors to enforce safety standards themselves, but when you are dealing with developers who want buildings delivered as cheaply as possible it is very difficult. They don't want to have to worry about safety. That is the contractor's liability. So when contractors put their estimates together safety is the last thing that is added and the first thing that is cut.'

Most international contractors agree that corners are being cut in the pursuit of unrealistic deadlines. And the consensus is that it will be difficult for contractors to fight the problem on their own. What is needed, they argue, is for governments to pay greater attention to on-site safety by ensuring more rigorous enforcement of safe working practices and better accident investigation and reporting.

'Contractors need support from the governments,' says the safety manager. 'They have inspectors for environmental issues but few for safety. The inspectors that they do have are not experienced enough. They do not know what to look for. They look to see if people are wearing hard hats and steel toe-capped boots, and if they see that they are happy. They are not bothered about scaffold design, temporary works design, or even how work is being carried out.

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