Property News: A question of safety in UAE construction sites

Health and SafetyImage Credit: Gulf News Archives

The UAE is no stranger to wide-scale construction projects. In just a matter of four decades since the country was established, the UAE has built some of the most impressive real estate developments in the world. With Dubai hosting the World Expo 2020, which headlines property news, the country is again on a construction spree, unveiling several record-setting projects, especially in Dubai.

As construction work picks up, so too should attention to health and safety. The government, for its part, has made good progress in implementing rules to ensure the safety of construction workers.

"There has been considerable improvement in health and safety for construction workers over the past few years, mainly focused on the significance of personal protection equipment and dehydration during the summer months," Jasmine Pereira, a health, safety and environment consultant, tells Property Weekly.

According to a report by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in May, more than 1,000 cases of employers accused of breaking labour laws were referred to prosecutors in the preceding year. This is a result of an enforcement campaign by the Ministry of Labour, which conducted inspections of construction sites.

Under fire
The UAE is also looking to reform its labour laws to address various recurring issues. Recent measures have included the adoption of international conventions, enforcement of penalties such as fines on erring companies, strict accommodation rules, prompt salary payment, international cooperation, stringent recruitment regulations and enhanced complaints mechanisms.

There have been reports in the past criticising the state of construction sites and labour accommodations in the GCC. The main complaints of workers include cramped living conditions, lack of food and exposure to excessive heat, which can be compounded by companies trying to cut corners to get projects completed faster to save cost.

Contractors of the Saadiyat island development in Abu Dhabi, for instance, were cited in media reports for failing to comply with the employment practices policy (EPP), including the health and safety of labourers.

Underlining the proactive efforts being undertaken in the UAE in addressing such issues, the second annual independent monitoring report compiled by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has noted that the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), the developer of Saadiyat island, has moved to improve the welfare of workers and ensure that contractors meet standards laid out in the EPP.

More recently, New York University's (NYU) Middle East campus in Abu Dhabi was also in the limelight because of reports of labour abuses. In response, Tamkeen, the government agency that oversees the NYU project, has employed investigative firm Nardello and Company to conduct an inquiry into labour conditions at the new campus.

"Tamkeen and NYU Abu Dhabi take any allegations of violations of the labour monitoring and compliance programme with the utmost seriousness," Tamkeen said in a statement.

Summer heat
The fierce heat that construction workers are subjected to in the summer months is a major concern. A 2009 study by the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi (Haad) found almost a third of workers on two construction sites surveyed suffering from dehydration, which "would put the subject at increased risk of heat-related accident or illness".

To address the heat issue, the government implemented a midday break rule in 2008, prohibiting labourers from working under direct sunlight from 12.30-3pm. This year the rule took effect on June 15 and will be in force until September 15. Construction firms found flouting the rule will be slapped a fine of Dh15,000.

The Ministry of Labour has revealed that of the 80,571 companies inspected last year, 312 were caught breaking the law. In 2012, 102 of the 53,990 firms inspected were fined.

The Ministry of Labour has distributed brochures in Hindi, Urdu, Nepalese, Bangla, English and Arabic informing workers and business owners about the midday break.

There are exceptions to the ban, including emergency work on power and water utilities.

Employers are also required to provide first aid, air conditioners, sunshades and drinking water for workers.

Worksite accidents
Part of the property news, is the construction-related accidents are the second-most common cause of emergencies in the UAE after road trauma. However, according to the Haad, the number of people killed from falls or falling objects at work has been reduced by a third during the period May 2012 to May last year.

“There has been a significant drop in the number of cases of construction workers hospitalised during the summer months due to the stringent rules implemented by the government," says Pereira. "Furthermore, there are now many companies aiming for 'zero harm' at project sites."

According to Pereira, UAE-based construction companies mainly follow the UAE Labour Law. Some firms also follow guidelines from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

With a multinational and multicultural workforce, contractors also need to be mindful of differences in the perception of workplace risk. Furthermore, many newly arrived labourers have little or no experience in the region's construction industry and are unable to speak Arabic or English. It is therefore important to communicate the Safety guidelines in different languages and install signage that use non-verbal instructions.

Safety programmes
“One of the major concerns in health and safety is the lack of information relayed to construction workers, who may fail to grasp the need for safety at work," says Pereira. "Workshops are currently a major focus, ensuring that the information shared is understood and that no language barrier is a cause for concern.

"In addition, short video clips have also proven to be a success, keeping the workshops prominent, interesting and graspable.”

The Haad has devised a special heat safety program me that has been running for the past five years. The Height Aware Safety Programme is another initiative that aims to highlight common injuries that occur in sectors such as construction, agriculture and oil and gas. The campaign distributes multilingual instruction booklets to companies and their staff, explaining the basics of health and safety.

There are also programmes that teach construction workers proper handling of electrical equipment, after it was revealed that accidents caused by incorrect usage of such equipment are on the rise. Around 4,450 such accidents were recorded last year, increasing from 3,574 in 2012.

The Institution of Occupational Safety Health, a registered charity, recently opened an office in Abu Dhabi, pledging to help reduce the number of people killed or injured in building sites. It plans to conduct spot checks at worksites and organise educational talks and workshops for health and safety practitioners.

While the construction industry has experienced some rocky patches in the implementation of health and safety regulations, a strong guiding hand by the government and an informed workforce will ensure that project sites in the UAE are among the safest in the world.

Source: Aya Lowe, Special to Property Weekly


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