By Monika Grzesik
With most construction sites being culturally diverse places, Monika Grzesik looks at the problems of getting the health and safety message across.
Cultural diversity is a fact of life in the UAE, where foreigners make up about 85% of the population; and nowhere is this reflected more than on a construction site.
A typical site may contain workers originating from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or China, not to mention project managers and supervisors who could be from as far afield as Australia, South Africa or the far corners of Europe.
Cultural diversity hinders rather than helps safety interaction.
While this type of cultural integration undoubtedly has its benefits, in an inherently dangerous workplace where communication is vital to ensuring that people don't get hurt, it can also be a major obstacle to guaranteeing the safety of everyone on site.
"Multicultural sites are a minefield," said Richard Lawton of South Africa-based Raintree Productions, a company which is looking at ways of helping to raise the bar for health and safety in the UAE, including possibly setting up a television channel dedicated to construction workers.
"Cultural diversity hinders rather than helps safety interaction. Migrant workers will naturally communicate with each other in their first language, inhibiting integration between colleagues and supervisors."
But more importantly, what about the ability of all employees to interpret vital messages regarding workplace hazards and safety information? How is it possible to overcome language and cultural barriers to make sure that every person on site is fully aware of the workplace dangers and how to avoid them?
Lawton believes that a major overhaul is needed in terms of the approach towards health and safety in order to create an accident-free construction site.
"Most of what is said to workers in the initial safety induction is forgotten," he said.
"You have to provide the cultural and language methodology to get them involved. We look at the emotional ownership of the process, such as ‘what is my responsibility?' and ‘what is the relationship between the company and me?'"
Using a variety of methods including theatre performances, workshops and focus groups, Lawton believes a common ground of understanding regarding the creation of a ‘culture of safety' in the workplace could be achieved.
"You have to deliver the message using the media the workers respond to best, and in a language they understand. If the message comes from the workers' point of view rather than the corporate one, they will understand it. It's about their culture and their language."
Lawton added that the idea is to engage workers as participants, which is crucial to achieving changes in attitude and behaviour. "In the long run it's about saving lives. To do this, you have to get the workforce to take ownership of their part of the responsibility of staying alive and staying safe."
A number of techniques used by Raintree are geared towards communication. Language diversity is a prominent feature on multicultural sites, and managing a linguistically diverse workforce can lead to problems for the site supervisor if workers cannot or do not feel comfortable communicating with site managers.
"Workers often won't communicate about incidents on sites, and this is what enables supervisors to know what's going on," said Lawton.
Another issue is trust, added Lawton. "No concerned worker will come to a supervisor he doesn't trust. Our processes are geared towards creating an atmosphere where workers feel comfortable. For example, on one site in South Africa only through the processes we put in place did the workers feel safe enough to tell their supervisors that they did not have enough water to drink."
Projects in South Africa where Raintree's programme has been put to the test have reported improvements in health and safety records due to the creation of a ‘culture of safety' on site.
"Raintree was a key element in the overall realisation of our project objectives," said Brent Hegger, project director, Murray & Roberts.
"Programmes including industrial theatre, labour facilitation sessions and staff sensitisation allowed project management to maintain excellent levels of labour harmony on our work sites."
Raintree is currently working with Sasol on its Project Turbo, one of South Africa's largest ever industrial projects. The project has so far achieved some impressive safety milestones, including 4 million ‘incident free' working hours.
Lawton suggests a number of Dubai-specific measures which could be adopted to raise health and safety standards in the emirate. These include creating a set of health and safety guidelines, which would be multilingual and presented in video format, as well as setting up a national television channel dedicated to life in construction, which could broadcast programmes daily to construction workers emphasising the health and safety message.
"In Dubai we are trying to reverse engineer safety," he said.
"We have built the environment and the city and now we are trying to build safety up from the bottom.