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November 6, 2009

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Construction- Movers and sheikers

With reference to the United Arab Emirates, Alan Bennett reminds readers involved in large construction projects in the region that a structured team approach can pay dividends in achieving good health and safety standards.

It is probably fair to say that in the Middle East, health and safety is sometimes seen as a burden, or necessary evil. There are several reasons for this, including a lack of understanding of the costs of poor health and safety, and a lack of awareness and training at many levels. 

Cultural factors are also an issue, with workforces and supervisors generally less sensitive to injury and loss of life because of their background and experience. In the Middle East, the workforce profile often comprises operatives from the Asian subcontinent, some of who may have never worked on a construction site before. The general poor understanding of health and safety of this workforce presents enormous challenges to directors, managers and supervisors involved in the project.

However, mature and experienced organisations recognise that a positive health and safety regime can considerably reduce costs and improve their reputation among suppliers, partners, investors and customers. They also understand how it can result in increased productivity and better quality through a safe working environment.

One of the best ways to manage health and safety on large construction projects in the region is to adopt an approach in which the client’s staff, design consultants, delivery managers and project controllers are all integrated into one team, which appoints and controls the consultants and contractors undertaking the construction work. Let’s now consider the roles and responsibilities of the individual elements that make up this integrated team.

The client
The client must accept that an effective health and safety policy should be driven from board level and filter down to all parties involved in the project.

The policy should set out explicit duties for each department, making it clear that specific directors and managers are accountable for their actions. To assist in driving this process down to project level, it is useful if the client appoints a project director with a construction background.

The appointment of the project director, as the individual ultimately responsible for health and safety, will send a clear message to all parties that health and safety accountability starts at the top. That accountability must be clear and it must be applied to the client’s activities across on-site and off-site operations.

It is equally important that the client employs a very senior health and safety manager with at least 20 years of construction experience. This will ensure he has the experience and skills necessary for the role, is credible and authoritative, and is able to offer appropriate guidance.

Ideally, the client’s head of health and safety should report to the chief operating officer, or to a senior director who has the authority, time and commitment required to ensure effective staff involvement in health and safety. It is also essential that the client’s project management team is seen out and about on site and takes an active interest in health and safety issues, otherwise a perception could arise that there is a lack of interest in health and safety in the client’s organisation.

Consultants are often employed on large contracts to help the client’s team. It is very easy for a tendering consultant or project manager to submit a tender at the lowest price possible in order to win the work. In today’s competitive market, that is understandable, however, a balance has to be struck between competence and the cost of it being achieved.

It is therefore extremely important that personnel appointed to manage work contracts have health and safety experience, knowledge of construction, and understand how to manage their particular scope of work.

It is not always possible to ensure that these requirements are in place at the start of an individual’s employment, as a significant number of personnel may have worked overseas for a considerable period with little or no exposure to health and safety. In these cases it is beneficial that delivery-team contracts clearly lay out the level of competence required to discharge health and safety responsibilities.

Construction supervisor
Consultants may undertake various roles, such as cost controllers, architects, designers, project managers, project controls, and engineers. A specific role of note is that of construction supervisor, which holds the responsibility for ensuring that contractors employed on works under their control adequately discharge their health and safety duties.

The consultant in a construction supervisory role would normally sit between the client’s delivery team and the contractor. Should the consultant fail to discharge his responsibilities, management of the contractor usually reverts to the delivery team, which is clearly unsatisfactory.

A defence often employed by consultants that work in the region is that their personnel are only responsible for the health and safety of the works when they are undertaking an inspection of those works from an engineering perspective. However, this position demonstrates a significant lack of understanding of health and safety responsibilities, and the result can be a considerable drain on the resources of the developer’s team, as they try to effectively control the health and safety of contractors. Nevertheless, consultants who discharge their health and safety responsibilities effectively are undoubtedly an asset.

Like consultants, suppliers and contractors may originate from any part of the globe and, quite understandably, be unaware of what is required in the UAE.

Specific attention should be given to local utilities companies, which tend to be sub-contractors with a poor understanding of health and safety requirements. This is compounded by the fact that they are unlikely to be working under any particular contractual arrangements. It is therefore essential that health and safety information is provided for these contractors at the earliest opportunity.

A useful tool for measuring a contractor’s performance is to set up a feedback system, whereby the developer is advised of a contractor’s or supplier’s performance with regard to health and safety during his contract. This can be supplemented with an appraisal of performance undertaken on completion of his work. This will deliver a baseline of the contractor’s or supplier’s safety knowledge and enable advice to be given on what measures are required to improve competence.

Project managers
Monitoring, reporting and ensuring actions are implemented are vital elements of promoting and achieving a health and safety culture. Systems should be introduced that allow the project managers, client and contractors to receive specific and incident-led routine reports on health and safety performance. The project safety manager should collate all events, statistics and actions and produce a monthly report for the project director and client.

A good working relationship between the safety manager and his line manager or director is also important. There are cases in the UAE where safety officers have been fearful of approaching senior management. Generally, this means that safety officers only deal with their counterparts at the appropriate level, thereby diluting any efforts being made to involve management in health and safety.

Influencing behaviour
If it is recognised that not everyone can readily adhere to health and safety practice and procedure, how can this group be incentivised? One method to encourage the right behaviour is to assess an individual’s health and safety performance as part of an annual appraisal. For example, 20 per cent of any annual salary increase, or bonus, could be linked to an individual’s approach and/or attitude towards health and safety.

Some may feel that driving behaviours in this way is a draconian step, or goes against modern management ethos, but linking bonuses and pay increases to production is hardly radical. Given that many in the construction industry would agree that a clean, tidy and safe site achieves higher productivity than one that is not, there is a useful parallel argument for incentivising health and safety performance.

Bear in mind also that a higher investment in health and safety is necessary in the Middle East, owing to its lower starting point in terms of training and experience. It is also the case that this investment needs to be more sustained, as cultural and education issues could contribute to a rapid decline in health and safety performance if the right level of training and enforcement is not maintained. 

Larger contractors, particularly those originating from or accustomed to working in more advanced countries, may have an experienced, well-trained management team that can implement and control health and safety efficiently. Other contractors may not be so well equipped, so it could be beneficial if the delivery team’s health and safety department provides a training programme for all contractors.

Auditing, as we all understand, is a means of reviewing and measuring health and safety performance. But before any decision can be made as to what system of auditing should be used, consideration must be given to the level of management competence in the organisation to be audited.

On a very large project in the UAE, there could be 50 or more contractors and 20 consultant organisations involved, and the origin of these organisations will differ widely. This will have a bearing on the complexity and detail an audit should include. Take the example of a  local contractor who has never been exposed to a health and safety regime adhering to US or UK standards; in this case, applying an audit programme designed to examine a paper trail and linked processes is likely to be a futile, frustrating and counter-productive exercise.

Consequently, any contractor or consultant in need of being audited should first undergo assessment to determine the most effective auditing mechanisms. Once a number of audits have been undertaken with organisations of varying competence, benchmarking can be established, which can provide a base criteria applicable to individual requirements of organisations on a project.

Specific risks
With regard to specific risks typically characteristic of a site in the Middle East, the following issues are worth mentioning:

Traffic management
The land area of some projects in the UAE is enormous. They may have public roads running through them, which must be kept open for all types of traffic, creating an extremely high risk of road-traffic accidents. If poorly managed, maintaining adequate traffic-control systems can be extremely costly, time-consuming, and difficult to enforce. Employing a professional road-traffic management company to put in place and maintain an effective traffic management system could therefore be worthwhile.

Worker accommodation
The number of personnel requiring accommodation on a large construction site can exceed 40,000, which is equivalent to a small town. Authorities should undertake regular inspections to ensure that adequate welfare standards are provided and maintained. It is also important that the welfare, well-being and medical care afforded to these personnel is adequate and appropriate, as it has a heavy influence on productivity levels, quality and safety.

The fire services in the UAE are provided by the civil defence. The location of the nearest civil defence posts should be closely examined at the planning stage of any project, with a view to identifying their capability and capacity to react to an incident at the project site. In cases where there are doubts about the services’ capacity or reaction time, arrangements should be put in place for the permanent provision of on-site fire-fighting equipment and trained fire-fighters, particularly where operative accommodation is involved.

Companies operating in the construction industry in the UAE should recognise that the country has developed considerably in the last 40 years. However, while much progress has been made, a Western-style health and safety culture is still evolving. Therefore, any organisation involved in construction in the UAE will need to put in place adequate standards, structures and processes to inspire the right behaviours with regard to health and safety. Done in the right way this will encourage the ongoing development and raising of health and safety standards.

The aim should be to encourage personnel to buy in to the wider health and safety ethos and to believe in what organisations are trying to achieve. Personnel should not be dismissed for contravening safety practices, as this only sends the problem elsewhere. Education, support and awareness will be more effective in the long term.

Most importantly, all levels of management should be visible in their efforts to promote health and safety – this, in itself, will go a long way to promoting a positive safety culture throughout the project.  

Alan Bennett is the safety manager for the Yas Island project in Abu Dhabi.

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