With high-profile international events such as the Expo 2020 in Dubai, the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar and new Vision 2030 developments in Saudi Arabia, health, safety and wellbeing standards in the construction industry are in the spotlight, writes Athar Meraj-Jawahar CMIOSH.
Given the high value of such projects including infrastructure projects and the international focus in the region, maintaining good health and safety standards is gaining importance and good performance is viewed as an achievement as well as business excellence.
Three of the main challenges facing health and safety are the lack of uniform and stringent safety regulation, lack of training or low competence level among culturally diverse transient workforces and unwillingness by contractors to bear added costs.
Currently there are several authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) responsible for safety legislation: Abu Dhabi Municipality, Zones Corp, Abu Dhabi Occupational Safety and Health Centre and The Ministry of Labour Dubai Municipality, each have their own legislative guidance and documentation.
It would be far more effective if there were one authority, which enforced uniform legislation across the board for all in the construction industry including subcontractors, supply chain and Free Zones and not just the larger multinational companies and tier one contractors.
The lack of consistent application of safety legislation and protocols is a major challenge that the construction industry, contractors and practitioners face when managing a culturally diverse workforce on large and complex projects. Moreover, working in a desert climate (extreme heat and sandstorms) in the absence of specific legislation and greater enforcement pertaining to such a harsh high-risk environment creates a challenge for health, safety and wellbeing practitioners.
Aligning the contractors, subcontractors, supply chain and workforces with international health and safety standards and best practices of multinational companies is the real test. The skillset, abilities, aptitude, qualifications, knowledge and experience of employees and of workforces are limited and lack the preparedness required for large fast paced projects. The workforce is made up of migrant expat labour from Asia and South Asia whom have never worked on such high value large-scale complex projects before and are not appropriately trained.
Capacity building in health and safety incurs financial costs, and other resources such as PPE, technology, increased and competent supervision that are not always given preference by contractors. It is the responsibility of employers to provide the appropriate training, tools and protection to its workers.
In order to lead in construction health and safety, it is important to contribute to a fresh perspective by focusing on the Processes of Engagement/Stakeholder Engagement to push through a pro-active and prevalent health and safety culture that is sustainable on projects.
Building a rapport and relationship of trust with stakeholders, and gaining their participation is crucial to move any health, safety and wellbeing efforts forward, which, in turn contributes to business continuity and success. Being respectful to all, listening, learning and encouraging inclusiveness creates a happy, safe and healthy work environment. It is necessary to continually focus time, genuine effort, passion, enthusiasm and hard work on engagement processes, by looking at goals, cooperation and win –win solutions for all. By managing the processes, through daily, weekly and monthly workshops, sessions, TBTs, and regular interaction, it is possible to influence and control the outcomes of improved health and safety attitudes, behaviours and actions.
An important part of engaging with migrant workers and employees from different cultures, with other languages, attitudes to safety and inadequate skill level is use of various communication methods to remove language barriers. By delivering OSH in local languages including Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi in addition to English it is possible to enhance the understanding of content and enable OSH to be accessible to all.
When information is translated and communicated in local languages, the difference can be seen and felt in engagement with the audience, who are now listening attentively with eyes wide open looking at the presentation slides and engaged by asking questions. Use of symbols, powerful imagery, video clips and specific material to benefit the audience ensures that important safety messages are getting across.
Using different communication methods is paramount to health and safety delivery and keeping employees and workers safe through raising their awareness on health and safety for them and other around them.
In the past, high accident and fatality rates was the hidden norm rather than the exception in the UAE, and across the MENA Region. Safety awareness was low, training inadequate and participation negligible. Health, Safety and Wellbeing has come a long way since then with participatory approaches and consistent engagement with all stakeholders being the key to a positive HSEW culture and future.
Athar is an OHS (MS) Lead Auditor