The Standard bearer

Given their omnipresence in the construction industry, it’s hard to imagine a world in which contractors and consultants didn’t make use of standards on a daily basis to carry tasks on projects. Construction standards govern everything from the quality of cement used on a project to the nuts and bolts that lock scaffolding into place.

They form a vital guideline for all stakeholders involved in a project. For a contractor, they ensure that the materials used on site meet a certain level of quality and reliability, while for a consultant, they allow for proper planning in terms of cost and design.

So it makes sense therefore that there are systems and checks in place to ensure that these standards are rigorously tested to ensure they remain relevant and up to date with a rapidly changing environment.

This is where the BSI Group come into play. When it was founded in 1901, the group was the world’s first national standards body. As part of its duties, it ensures the development and sale of private, national and international standards and supporting information. It also conducts second and third party management systems assessment and certification.

Most importantly for the construction industry, it also provides testing and certification of products and services, along with training services that support the implementation of standards and best practices.

It is this that brings Big Project ME to a meeting with Theuns Kotzé, the regional managing director for BSI in the Middle East and Africa. While contractors and consultants follow the many standards that are already in place for the maintenance of physical assets on construction sites, concerns still remain about the adherence to health and safety standards in the market.

“The general statistics that I can see show that there has been a decline in accidents in construction, and specifically in the number of fatalities. I think that the Dubai and Abu Dhabi governments don’t want to deal with death on construction sites any more. They’ve got inspectors trained to go around and check sites, and we’ve trained some of the inspectors, so we know that they’ve done the training to increase their level,” Theun Kotzé relates during an interview at BSI Middle East’s offices in Bur Dubai.

“Abu Dhabi has done a fairly smart job of writing HSE regulations, where every construction company must have an audit done by a company like us. The requirements that they have in Abu Dhabi are very well written. There’s stuff about working in confined spaces, and there’s stuff about working at heights. All those really hazardous things are really very well described in terms of what should be in place. I think that there’s some world class stuff that’s in there,” he asserts.
Kotzé points out that he’s been in Dubai for seven years and in that time he’s seen a tremendous amount of change in the way health and safety is approached in the UAE, which is a consequence of a global rethink. “A couple of years ago, the worst industries (for fatalities) were construction, mining and tunnel boring. I think that in countries like the UAE, construction is one of the more hazardous industries to work in. The dangers are most related to working at height.” This is where he says that the proper enforcement of standards can help the construction industry achieve a zero fatalities target on project sites.

However, he takes pains to differentiate between injury prevention measures and accident prevention measures, which is something he believes the industry needs to be aware of.
“There’s a difference between preventing and preventing an accident. A seatbelt in a car is an injury preventer, not an accident prevention measure,” Kotzé relates. “Protective equipment is generally an injury prevention measure. Accident prevention measures are generally trickier, in a sense because they deal with unsafe acts and practices. That needs training and qualifying measures.” He explains that accident prevention measures in construction include having properly installed scaffolding, with the correct ladder access and netting and floor boards that stop tools or workers from falling through and causing injuries or damage to equipment. 

Alarmingly, Kotzé says that he’s observed instances in Dubai where these steps aren’t followed, though he admits that overall, there has been significant progress in general. “I’ve seen situations around Dubai sometimes, and I’m not saying that they’re bad, but they’re not up to standard. The problem is that if you do proper accident prevention measures, it’s more expensive and it takes longer, and if you want to cut some of your costs, you cut safety measures. “However, in places like Abu Dhabi, it’s very strictly controlled and in Dubai, it’s fairly good. I think that accident rates decreased by about 30% in the last year in the UAE – according to the statistics that I’ve read,” he explains.

One such project that perfectly illustrates this change is the Dubai International Airport expansion that was conducted by ALEC. During the construction of the newest terminal building, not one fatality was recorded, which was a result of the stringent health and safety standards that were in place and followed to the letter. “I know that there were a lot of people that were rescued (from dangerous situations). Because they were using their harnesses, even though they did fall, it was arrested. The rules for the contractor were very strict. If they caught someone not following the rules, they didn’t punish the worker, but instead they took the worker’s manager or supervisor and put him on a day’s training. I think they even put the site manager on a training course. With these kind of projects, it’s 100% possible not to have any fatalities onsite,” the managing director insists.

Although safety standards have improved a lot, there is an area that BSI’s regional managing director thinks needs more study and education in the UAE. This is the ‘health’ aspect of health and safety Management. While onsite safety is most visible on a construction site, the issues surrounding the management of the health of workers is in many ways, more crucial in the long-term. “In general, health has always taken a back seat. That’s because health issues don’t appear immediately. Long term exposure to asbestos, for example, has been around for years and there are a lot of old buildings that still use asbestos.

“In previous years, when asbestos was outlawed in some countries, they dumped it on the rest of the world. So you can find old equipment that has asbestos in it, even in places like Dubai. Silicosis is an occupational disease that is really high up on the list (of dangers),” he points outs.
“Then noise induced hearing loss is another health issue that is a concern. It takes a few years for people to feel its effects because they constantly use heavy equipment. They will eventually go deaf,” he points out. Another health hazard that construction workers in this region face is heat exhaustion. While Kotzé is reluctant to define it as such, terming it more as an ‘injury’ hazard, he concedes that it does have a long term health impact on construction workers. This is evidenced by recent reports of workers in Qatar suffering from heart attacks due to the temperatures they work in.

One suggestion that Kotzé has to combat this issue is to introduce an acclimatisation period for construction workers, similar to what the Chamber of Mines in South Africa has introduced for the workers in their mines. “I know that in mining, you have temperatures of 45°C in shafts that are kilometres deep underground. Not only that, but the shafts are heavily ventilated, so not only is it very hot, but it’s very windy. The acclimatisation period for that is two weeks and you lose the effects only after about three weeks. So once you’ve acclimatised to those conditions, if you go home or away for a month, you have to go through the acclimatisation programme again.
“Where I think problems occur is when people arrive and they put them straight to work,” he says, referring to the construction industry in the GCC. “I would rather suggest that there is an acclimatisation process or period before they start work. Acclimatisation has been the science for a long time, it’s just that it has not necessarily been practiced here,” Kotzé claims, “The Chamber of Mines in South Africa, they do this and it’s nothing new. It needs to be done. Workers can be fit enough to work in these conditions, and they should be (looked after). It’s a health issue ultimately, and health has taken a back seat. You want people to get the education and to teach workers and to train them. Put them through the acclimatisation process, it’s definitely possible, but it may be new to some of the countries here,” he asserts.