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Middle Eastern promise: prioritising safety

Atkins | 30 Oct 2015 | Comments

Given its ongoing investment in major infrastructure projects, it’s no surprise that health and safety remains a focus for contractors working throughout the Arabian Peninsula. And now governments across the region are looking for new and better ways to ensure that worker wellbeing remains a priority.

In the past two decades, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has undergone one of the most radical transformations ever witnessed, with the construction sector at the heart of this change.

With so much prolonged activity and a pipeline of projects intended to support the country’s ongoing economic diversification, it should come as little surprise that the UAE has been leading the Gulf Cooperation Council as far as health and safety in construction is concerned.

For example, along the Persian Gulf coast, authorities in the UAE have made it mandatory for workers to down tools between 12:30pm and 3pm and for employers to provide shaded areas. The Ministry of Labour began demanding compulsory breaks for workers in open areas 11 years ago.

However, relative to the scale of the construction boom, health and safety in the Middle East is not yet embedded in industry culture. While the Health & Safety Executive in the UK and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the US can enforce their authority through citations and fines, there hasn’t traditionally been a formalised system in place in this region.

“In Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the regulatory authorities conduct enforcement activities, including on-site inspections and levying penalties where required, but many of the authorities in the region are relatively new,” says Atkins’ director John Milligan.

Making the grade

In an ongoing effort to close the gap with more mature markets and become more effective drivers of change, government authorities are working closely with partners, including Atkins, to bring safety in line with international best practice.

For example, when taking on supervisory contracts, Atkins oversees all contractors’ safety management, reviewing their plans and ensuring they meet the legal requirements of that jurisdiction. Not all contractors are created equal, however.

“We encounter a broad array of contractors, from those who don’t have the capacity to deliver against the legal requirements of the country in which they’re operating, to those who consistently deliver against international best practice,” says Milligan.

Knowing which contractors fall into the latter category is vital, as responsibility ultimately falls on the client. They are responsible for procuring both the construction and consultancy services, and drawing up contractual obligations such as penalties for non-compliance.

With this in mind, two years ago, Atkins developed a strategy document to help assess client and contractor safety standards and determine how they procure their supply chain.

“We gathered information on whether contractors actually understand the legal requirements and have the capacity to apply those requirements on any given site,” says Milligan. “We found that quite a few of them did not.”

The system ranks parties accordingly and provides a clear health and safety picture for everyone involved. In the two years since it was first developed, the system showed that if a client is determined to be very safety mature, they are inclined to recruit contractors with equally high standards. Further down the scale, those with poorer standards are more likely to choose contractors with weaker safety standards.

This does not mean that only contractors at the top of the pile are the only ones that should be brought on board – properly supervised, those in the middle can learn improved safety checks and measures which they can apply in future, creating a virtuous health and safety circle in the process.

Speaking a common language

This tiering system is just one tool for approaching health and safety. All projects require a series of method statements – documents that give specific instructions on how to safely perform a work-related task or operate a piece of equipment. Acting in a supervisory capacity, the consultant’s role is to ensure that contractors are keeping to these method statements.

Atkins found that many contractors in the Middle East were treating these statements as a formality, creating them for approval, then filing them away.

To address this, Atkins set about developing its Minimum Requirements initiative, which won Health & Safety Initiative of the Year at MEED’s inaugural Daman Corporate Health Awards in Abu Dhabi in 2014. The initiative takes a pro-active approach: contractors are asked to demonstrate on-site exactly how they are adhering to their method statements. Contractors also have to take photos of key stages of a project, to be included in the method statements before they are approved by Atkins.

These visual aids are crucial – while workers on projects in the Middle East may share a common language, many are unable to read or write. Illustrating the sequence of work, with an emphasis on safety, helps to overcome barriers such as illiteracy. Once these photos are appended to the method statements, Atkins can give a project its final approval and construction can get underway.

“And if a method statement is breached, we can pull consent of supervision for all similar activities on that project. One incident is all it takes to pull consent for the rest of the project, which means contractors take the process far more seriously than before,” says Milligan.

Fortunately, Atkins has been showing best practice by sharing its health and safety procedures with as many clients, contractors and – perhaps surprisingly – consultants as possible. By spreading the word, Atkins is helping to raise standards throughout the Middle East and thereby deepening the pool of viable contractors.

“We encourage our clients to include our Minimum Requirements document in their tenders when they are procuring contractors and we’ve encouraged them to use the same criteria as we do for assessing the safety maturity of contractors,” says Milligan. “With this kind of partnership, everybody speaks the same language and, we hope, health and safety will continue to be given priority by everyone involved.”