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Sat 2 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

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Good form

Contractors used to get away with using inferior quality formwork on construction sites in the UAE.

Contractors were getting away with using inferior quality formwork on construction sites in the UAE, but with health and safety rules coming into play, times are changing, discovers Shikha Mishra.

With contractors in the UAE becoming increasingly aware of international safety standards, the problem of inferior formwork being used in construction sites might soon be history.

Until a few years ago, contractors in the UAE were notorious about cutting costs when it came to formwork. A number of projects in Sharjah and Ajman used substandard formwork, and accidents due to formwork failure were common.

Cheaper systems translate to higher profits but companies don't compare the actual cost.

"In the UAE, some sites still use conventional timber formwork, which tends to be unstable. Timber formwork is also damaging to the environment as thousands of cubic feet of timber gets wasted after just one use. This also adds to the recurring costs of contractor," says Shalin Adiparambil, technical department of Peri Formwork and Shoring.

In the European market, formwork that offers ease of installation with minimum labour input is commonly used, even though it might add to the target formwork cost.

Erecting traditional types of formwork is labour and time intensive and requires hand lifting from floor to floor.

The popularity of traditional formwork in the region is due to the fact that contracting companies can afford the added labour costs thanks to the low wages paid to construction workers in the Middle East market.

"Cheaper systems translate to higher profits. But companies don't compare the actual cost. For example, good formwork might cost around US $ .27 million (AED1 million). The cheaper one might be around US $136,184 (AED500,000). What companies don't factor in is that they spend additional $136,184 on labour costs. By investing in a superior quality formwork, the company can save time and money in the long run," says Ina Juenemann, marketing coordinator of Peri Formwork Shoring Engineering.

All construction projects operate on a strict budget, which is an easy way to keep project costs under control, is for the manager to opt for an inexpensive and poor quality formwork.

"Most managers in the region don't think of the big picture, and by choosing cheaper formwork, they can save money on the current project. In all probability, before the next project starts up, he might have switched jobs anyway," says Juenemann.There are three ways formwork is used in the UAE market.

"The contracting company buys the formwork outright; the second is to contract the formwork company to supply the material, do the installation and once the job is done, the formwork is returned," says Dawood Ozair, managing director of Al Futtaim Engineering.

"The third form is purely rental, where the civil contractor rents the formwork on a monthly basis, organises the installation and after the pre-agreed period the material is returned to the formwork company who then repair it and keep it ready for the next project."

By investing in a superior quality formwork, the company can save time and money in the long run.

The change in the formwork sector is coming through the rising concerns about worker safety on the construction site.

"Times have changed and since international contractors have come into the market, they avoid using formwork that doesn't adhere to safety standards. The Dubai municipality does spot checks on construction sites which deters contractors from using poor products," says Ozair.

The most susceptible component in a formwork structure is its plywood shuttering which can get damaged due to mishandling and non-maintenance.

"After every concrete pour, the wood in the formwork systems needs to be cleaned with special water-resistant oil. Some labourers also drill holes where it shouldn't be done, so it cuts down the life span of the formwork structure. This is where skilled labour comes into play, if not maintained or used properly, formwork can get damaged," says Juenemann.

As in every aspect of construction, the lack of skilled labour is showing up the formwork segment too. Ozair says that apart from the Middle East market, construction is booming in countries such as India and China as well.

With trained personnel getting paid well in their home countries, the incentive to work abroad is lost.

"This poses a challenge in our sector's growth," he says.Most workers are not properly trained to use formwork and accidents happen due to improper stripping and removal, premature concrete setting and lack of inadequate bracing.

"Some formwork systems need additional bracing, as they are situated near a busy road or train tracks. The vibrations from the resulting wind force in such areas have to be taken into consideration. Also certain areas in the region have unstable soil bearing. It might seem like a minor point, but formwork can collapse in such cases," says Adiparambil.

Any accident on the construction site can cause loss of life and money.

A vertical formwork collapsing can be dangerous to men working on or around it.

Most types of formwork operate on a British standard safety factor - which means that it can take on some amount of additional weight than what it is designed for.

Despite the factoring in for extra weight on the system, formwork collapses are mostly due to usage failure rather than a failure of the product.

"We deliver the product, provide designs, send the supervisor on the site for initial training, but after we leave, we don't know what is happening and if the product is being used correctly. Unfortunately, whenever an accident happens it will always be the formwork supplier who gets blamed," says Juenemann.

To avoid formwork-related accidents, there should be adequate supervision on the worksite; provision of good access for workers; controlling of concrete practices and maintaining a one point contact between the formwork specialist and contractor.

Despite the challenges, the speed of construction in the Emirate has fuelled the increase in the formwork market in the UAE. Ozair pegs the growth figure at 20%-25% year-on-year.

And with the region's construction market showing no signs of slowing down, formwork companies will be busy for a long time to come.

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