Safety first: changing priorities

Atkins | 15 Jun 2011 | Comments

Health and safety initiatives are beginning to gather momentum in the United Arab Emirates, starting in Abu Dhabi. To push the issue to the very top of the construction agenda, a new project is now underway that aims to revolutionise practices in the region.

“Health and safety should have no boundaries,” says Atkins’ chief executive, Keith Clarke. “This is why it is important that we work together to lead on and work with other stakeholders within the industry to improve health and safety standards worldwide.”

For the past year, the Al Ain City Municipality in Abu Dhabi, which administers the inland city of Al Ain and its surrounding areas, has been working with Atkins with exactly this goal in mind. They are setting up a new environment, health and safety (EHS) department to share best practice in the construction sector and enforce new regulations. Atkins is well placed to advise, having been once again awarded a Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) Gold Award in 2010 for excellence in control of health and safety in the workplace.

The creation of the department follows an emirate-wide decree in 2009 that called for the introduction of EHS management systems across several sectors, including health, industry, transport, tourism, food, energy, education, waste and construction. The last of these required urgent attention: according to a report published that same year by the United Arab Emirates University, up to 65 per cent of emergency hospital admittances concerned injuries that were consistent with construction site accidents.

Such a statistic raises the question: how high is health and safety on the agenda in the UAE? While larger, international developers may operate under clearly defined health and safety standards, smaller contractors brought in to handle various aspects of a job may not work in the same way.

Al Ain City Municipality is taking the lead on the construction aspect, sharing its systems and know-how with the Western Region Municipality and Abu Dhabi City Municipality, effectively covering the whole emirate.

Since beginning work on the project in early 2010, Atkins has set up an IT system for registering and reporting companies, creating a set of construction health and safety regulations and guidelines based on the decree, as well as developing a strategy for enforcement. Atkins has also established a website for the department as part of a wider marketing and awareness programme.

The department, which will eventually number about 40 full-time staff, is already 25-strong and includes inspectorate managers, training managers, non-technical trainers, EHS inspectors and general administrators. One of the first tasks is to recruit personnel and provide mentoring, training and support. The project should be complete by the beginning of 2013.

Convincing companies

Atkins’ EHS project manager, Mark Warrington, says the long-term aim is to get organisations to treat issues such as safety as mainstream management responsibilities. In the past, he says, there has been a tendency for health and safety to be treated as a secondary issue (one overseen by “hazard-spotters”, who would go to construction sites alerting workers to dangerous practices). Ideally, EHS should be built into the operation of the site, rather than being treated as an afterthought, he says.

The response from entities (as companies are referred to in the decree) so far has been promising. Up to 270 people, from 100 organisations, attended a launch event last May. Since then, five workshops organised by the Atkins team have been well attended. The department intends to communicate regularly with the construction community as it rolls out the programme. The next stage will be to publish regulations and guidelines on the website, starting in the second quarter. After that, entities will be expected to produce their own procedures and to monitor their implementation against set criteria.

The goal is to establish an “EHS culture” where companies see it’s in their interests to observe high standards, for both financial and moral reasons. The team hopes that can be achieved by propagating information and assisting entities as they develop their procedures. But John Milligan, Atkins’ project director, emphasises that a robust inspectorate will also be necessary to enforce standards once the programme is up and running.

“In an ideal world, contractors, consultants, developers and client organisations observe EHS regulations because they understand the underlying risks to life and the environment. In the real world, this is true only most of the time because of the pressure to deliver buildings and infrastructure to the tightest timetable and lowest cost. What organisations fail to understand is that human suffering affects victims, families and the balance sheet,” he says.

Part of the reason why a safety culture has not taken root until now has been a lack of financial incentive. Companies in many other countries need expensive insurance policies to cover workplace accidents and face escalating premiums should things go wrong. No such policies have been implemented in the UAE, although the costs related to accidents can still be significant. Abdel-Mohsen Onsy, a professor at UAE University who is advising on the project, estimates a fatality can cost as much as a million UAE dirhams (about $USD280,000 or £170,000) when workplace downtime and compensation payments to workers’ families are taken into account.

The new EHS requirements are likely to raise the costs of non-compliance still higher, according to Munjed Maraqa, associate professor of environmental engineering at UAE University. In future, companies will have to establish strong EHS standards, or face the risk of losing business in the emirate.

“I don’t think the entities will have a choice. If they are to work in Abu Dhabi, they will have to start implementing this system. Eventually it could start affecting their business. Entities that do it will have a good reputation in the market and will win better business. And at some point the regulatory authority will work on screening those companies that have not implemented this system,” he says.

Improved safety standards could help to attract expat workers, who are vital for the local construction sector given the high demand for skilled workers in this area and a relatively small skills pool.

Professor Maraqa says: “Let’s assume that the number of accidents falls dramatically in the coming years. For me as an expat worker, if I know that one country has a certain number of accidents and another country has a better record, which country am I going to go to? I would definitely go to the place that respects and understands the need for a better workplace.”

From the ground up

Although the EHS is modelled on international best practice, the scheme departs in several ways from what would be typical in Europe or North America. For example, the EHS system goes beyond safety, also covering areas such as pollution and waste and sustainable development. In the West, environmental and safety performance tend to be overseen by different agencies.

Professor Maraqa says this is because agencies in the West were developed earlier, when issues such as the environment were seen as less important. Combining the two makes sense, he says.

“This is something unique, and it is good because the aspects are interrelated. For example, if there is a lot of dust outside the site, there will be a lot of dust on the site and that could affect the health of the workers.”

Professor Maraqa hopes the system will help to develop better EHS practices beyond Abu Dhabi – perhaps even as far afield as neighbouring countries Saudi Arabia and Oman.

“I can’t see an entity that has worked in Abu Dhabi and developed a good EHS culture suddenly going to Dubai or elsewhere and saying ‘we’re not going to adhere to this’. No, it’s a habitual thing. Once you get it, it will remain with you. Abu Dhabi is doing a favour for many regions by doing this. I think in time other countries will adopt similar systems,” he says.

Milligan and Warrington say Abu Dhabi also needs to develop a system for training and professionalising EHS managers. The department is trying to kick-start the process by encouraging new employees to get internationally recognised EHS qualifications.

At the same time, it is trying to impress on potential recruits that EHS is a noble profession, which can actually improve the lives of many. “There are not many jobs where you come in and get paid for doing something both for the benefit of this country and for the people coming here to work,” says Warrington.

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