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 organisation in the region that collects and analyses site safety statistics – there has been a marked improvement in the UAE between 2008 and 2009.

Data submitted by 18 contractors, covering 388 projects, reported 690 lost-time incidents and 20 fatalities in 2008. In 2009, 36 contractors provided data on 479 projects and, although there were more schemes, fatalities halved to 10, while lost-time incidents fell to 530.

“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,”

Key number

  • 50per cent: The drop in UAE on-site fatalities in 2009 compared with 2008

Legislation

Despite this progress, much more needs to be done to improve health and safetypractise in the region.

“Across the GCC, legislation is fragmented and typically at an early stage of development,” says Brian Colquhoun, regional health and safety manager at UK consultant Mott MacDonald. “In many cases, specific legislation is not readily available and exists only in the form of Labour Law, as opposed to health and safety legislation. In the case of the UAE, there is existing legislation, however, it is not federal and as such varies from one emirate to another.”

The 1980 Labour Law is the legislation currently in place in the UAE, supplemented by a ministerial order made in 1982. Chapter five of the law covers the safety, protection, health and social care of employees in 10 articles. These articles set out the entitlements of workers in terms of protective safety equipment, fire procedures, first-aid boxes, ventilation, sanitation, water and medical care.

But all references to safety on site are rather general in scope and construction professionals say the region would benefit from more prescriptive laws. For example, article 97 of the law states: “The employer or his representative at the time of appointment must keep employees informed of the dangers related to their profession and preventive measures they have to take. Moreover, the employer must display detailed written instructions in this respect at places of business.”

These broad statements mean that contractors can interpret them as they deem appropriate. Furthermore, stipulations such as the need for written instructions are of little use if written in Arabic or English for an Urdu-speaking labourer, particularly if he cannot read. 

Contractors agree that unified health and safety legislation would help. “Standard legal requirements for the country will support improving the health, safety and environmental performance and preventing misunderstanding or lack of awareness for any of the requirements,” says Wael Salah, corporate quality health safety and environment manager at UAE contractor Drake and Scull International, also a Build Safe member.

But other firms question how useful standardised, prescriptive legislation would be when enforcement is difficult.

Across the GCC, legislation is fragmented and typically at an early stage of development

Brian Colquhoun, Mott MacDonald

“Legislation is not the main issue. The issue is more about the ability to enforce and maintain standards. For example in 2007, Dubai Municipality had thousands of sites, but only 16 inspectors,” says Chris Doyle, Build Safe UAE deputy chairman, who is also head of environment, health and safety and sustainability at Australia headquartered-Bovis Lend Lease.

UAE Health and Safety statistics
  2008 2009
Number of projects 388 479
People working on-site 296,093 276,323
Man-hours worked 872,485,818 887,072,131
Lost-time incidents 690 530
Fatalities 20 10
Lost-time incident rate 0.0791 0.0597
Fatality frequency rate 0.0023 0.0011
Source: Build Safe UAE

Education

A more powerful approach, says Doyle would be to educate firms about the benefits of good health and safety practices. “Health and safety doesn’t sell itself only on its morals, there are other benefits and this is an important element. It directly impacts on project programme and cost,” he says.

“Companies who already have good standards know it is more efficient and just accepted that fact, but others need to be shown the benefits.”

Build Safe UAE was launched in January 2008 by six major Dubai-based stakeholders. These were Bovis Lend Lease, which also carries out the administrative functions; Dutco Balfour Beatty; Al-Futtaim Carillion; Al-Naboodah Laing O‘Rourke; Nasa Multiplex; and Murray & Roberts.

Today, there are 109 member organisations including consultants, contractors, regulators and developers. The firms share best-practice examples of safe working and send out warnings when accidents occur to prevent future incidents. “Safety alerts are sent out on Sundays and as a group we have issued 450 to date, with 236 best-practice alerts,” says Doyle. More than 6,800 people receive the email alerts.

It is unusual for a voluntary industry body to force firms to participate in sharing experiences and reporting statistics. “We have now set up each company with key performance indicators, which monitor their progress in contributing to the group and we review these every six months. So far we have had three reviews and during that process 10-15 have been delisted. Approximately half of those then re-affirmed their commitment and participated and half just drifted away,” says Doyle.

What is also unusual for an industry body is that it is influencing government. The organisation has been asked to work with the UAE Labour Ministry on preparing Federal Occupational Health and Safety at Work Regulations for the construction sector. “To the best of my knowledge it is the first time the ministry has collaborated with an industry group,” says Doyle.

To develop these regulations, the UAE is also working with the Geneva-headquartered International Labour Organisation, and has established the Occupational Health Safety Technical Committee to assist in the development of best-practice. “This is seen as a huge step forward in the process of eventually developing federal law that will cover the entire UAE and hopefully spread to other GCC countries,” says Colquhoun.

Regional drive

The spread to other GCC countries is already happening within the industry. Build Safe UAE has now established Build Safe Bahrain and Build Safe Oman. In order to keep up with the growth, Doyle says the next step is to begin charging a membership fee to cover the administrative costs of running the organisation, which until now has been paid for by Bovis Lend Lease with support from some of the other founder members.

A regional picture of health and safety performance, along with areas for improvement will emerge as Build Safe expands to other Gulf states. When Build Safe was initially set up, only seven contractors provided site safety statistics, but today 36 firms send in their numbers. For some, this was the first time they had even collected the data themselves.

Frequent training is one of the most essential elements for preventing and protecting workers

Chris Doyle, Build Safe UAE

What the figures are showing is that although safety performance is getting better, there is plenty of scope for improvement. In terms of the 530 lost-time incidents that Build Safe member firms reported 2009, most of them were attributable to falls from height, falling objects, materials handling problems or slips and trips.

“Fall from height is still a major cause of fatalities,” says Doyle. To try and prevent such incidents, the group has initiated a range of measures from best-practice alerts – for example recommending the use of edge protection to scaffolding – to the establishment of a focus group to develop best-practice guidelines.

Using such information to train staff is considered key to improving safety performance. DSI’s Salah says this, along with equipment testing, is crucial in preventing incidents. “Frequent training is one of the most essential elements for preventing and protecting workers from accidents, and inspection and testing of equipment is another important element.”

Build Safe founding firm Dutco Balfour Beatty has invested heavily in training. In October 2008, the firm launched a £350,000 ($518,000) training and development centre near the company’s head office in Jebel Ali, Dubai. The centre provides both health and safety training and more specialist site activity training such as steel-fixing, scaffolding and carpentry. 

Language barriers

Another area of focus is how to deal with the multitude of languages on site. “We have staff from more than 20 nationalities, and with some nationalities having several different dialects, it is essential to be able to communicate with all of them in their mother language,” says Salah.

Airport and tall buildings specialist, Turkish contractor TAV Construction, says constant monitoring of site conditions is another key aspect to ensuring an incident-free site, as is senior managers leading by example.

“At our projects we monitor and evaluate health and safety on a daily basis. Every morning at six o’clock, a team consisting of members of various divisions, including our senior managers, tours the site,” says Yusuf Akcayoglu, Gulf regional director at TAV. The firm is currently working on airports in Doha, Tripoli, Sebha and Muscat, along with several tall buildings in Dubai.

“This practice is beneficial from two aspects. First of all, having seen their seniors’ commitment for safety, the workers are encouraged to perform their jobs in a safer manner. And as their consciousness for safety increases, they encourage colleagues and thus the foundation of a safe working environment is laid,” he says.

Consultants also have a role to play in influencing site safety through designs or site supervision. “Designers need to be far more aware of the implications of their design and the practicality of implementing the construction,” says Tim Judge, vice-president for strategic development at US consultant Hill International.

Although safety is clearly improving, particularly in the UAE, much more remains to be done. The development of dedicated health and safety regulations by the Labour Ministry is a step forward, but these efforts need to be replicated around the region.