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Sat 1 Sep 2007 04:00 AM

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A healthy workforce: is enough being done?

Monika Grzesik looks at the measures being taken by employers and the authorities to safeguard the health of construction workers.

A cursory glance into any one of Dubai's busier emergency rooms will tell you that for many construction workers in the emirate, hospital trips are part and parcel of their experience in Dubai.

At the Iranian Hospital's emergency department, nurse Hasan Sabbagh said that, on average, around 10 construction workers are brought in on a daily basis. But these numbers vary and in some months the hospital treats well over 300 labourers for accidents and illnesses.

Many don’t have insurance ... and the workers have to pay for themselves, or they have to get their friends to pay.

Jebel Ali Hospital also regularly treats labourers in serious conditions. "The cases are relatively high on this side because we are in ‘New Dubai' where there is a lot of construction work," said Dr Prem Jagyasi.

"It's very important to spread awareness about this because recently we have seen some cases in very bad condition."

Working in such a hazardous environment it's no surprise that construction workers are particularly susceptible to illness and injury. But with so many ending up in hospital on a daily basis - are employers and the authorities doing enough to safeguard the health of this most vulnerable section of society?

One of the biggest problems is that many construction workers that become ill or end up in hospital cannot afford to pay for treatment.

"Some companies have health insurance for their workers, but many don't have insurance to cover them and the workers have to pay for themselves, or they have to get their friends to pay. We have so many cases like this," said Sabbagh.

He believes that the situation will be improved once the Dubai government follows in the footsteps of Abu Dhabi and introduces a mandatory health insurance law, which will make it compulsory for companies to provide health insurance for their workforce.

Dr Juma Bilal Fairouz, director of the department of disease control, Ministry of Health, said: "Health insurance is vital and since there is no tax system in this country to support such schemes, I think the contractors should have to bear the cost of it for their employees. They're the ones profiting from these workers and therefore they should provide health insurance for them."

However, if the law follows the Abu Dhabi model directly, it will not cover on-site injuries, and it will be up to companies to take out this extra cost.

But there is also evidence of some employers taking greater steps to safeguard the health of their labour force. As the midday working ban comes to a close, hospitals are reporting that this summer has seen a significant decline in numbers of workers suffering from heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion, compared to previous years.

Dr Moin Fikree, clinical director, emergency and trauma centre, Rashid Hospital, believes that the drop is down to more companies taking the government ban, and workers health in general, more seriously.

"The law has brought about a change in attitude towards illness," he said. "It has brought to the forefront the recognition that it exists, that it is preventable and by very simple techniques. I think that as everybody becomes more aware of this, companies realise they don't want to get a bad name by having their labourers end up in clinics all the time."

"I have been to a few construction sites over the past few months. The most notable that comes to my mind is the new terminal at the Dubai Airport, and it's amazing when you go there and everywhere you see signs telling workers to ‘keep hydrated' and ‘keep on drinking'," he added.

Similar initiatives can be found among some of Dubai's larger developers - Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA) is set to establish on-site first aid centres for labourers. "It has become imperative to offer medical facilities for construction workers," said Khalil Odeh Shalan, director of operation and facility management, DSOA.

"The first aid centre is being launched with the objective of treating employees working on these sites who suffer work-related injuries, and is in line with the rules and regulations of the Ministry of Labour," he added.

Al Futtaim Carillion also invests in healthcare for labourers with trained first aid personnel on all sites, a 24-hour medical centre at labour camps and isolation rooms for those with communicable diseases.

"We try to take preventative measures as much as possible regarding illness," said Gurdev Singh, safety advisor, Al Futtaim Carillion. "This summer we are providing all our workers with Hydrolyte dehydration powder so we've had no serious cases of dehydration among the workforce. All first aid is provided, but anything that is more serious, we take them straight to hospital."

These measures are a big step in the right direction, but as Singh points out, "many of the big companies have these types of medical facilities on site, but I don't know how smaller companies are managing".

Health status is one of the most tangible indicators of workers' well being; while government policies such as working bans and mandatory health insurance schemes will go some way towards protecting labourers it is ultimately up to employers to ensure that the health of their workforce is properly safeguarded.

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