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Sat 30 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Grace under fire

Recently named Abu Dhabi's safest construction site, just what are the HSE teams on Central Market doing to keep workers out of harm's way.

Grace under fire
Grace under fire
Central Market, under construction in Abu Dhabi, has won an award for site safety, an accolade partly put down to incessant training and tool box talks.

Recently named Abu Dhabi's safest construction site, just what are the HSE teams on Central Market doing to keep workers out of harm's way.

"The absolute minimum PPE you can wear on site is a hard hat, a safety vest and safety boots," explains Atkins health and safety manager Shaun Dent.

As he warns me to beware of uneven surfaces in order to avoid slips, trips and falls, I pull on my PPE while continuing to pay full attention.

"Stay vigilant. Keep looking around you at all times - don't forget to look above, too."

Over the past few months, the region's construction industry has taken several knocks in the form of mid-construction building collapses and on-site fires blazing into the night. Just last week, experts told Construction Week that the region was at particular risk from fire injuries and casualties, due to the extra difficulties presented by building the ubiquitous high-rises.

We wanted to see just what could be done to prevent the risk of fires and accidents when working hundreds of metres up in the air, so where better to head to than the project recently named Abu Dhabi's safest construction site at a prestigious industry awards night?

"This site has the highest possible safety reputation and we're working hard to maintain that throughout," continues Dent, speaking with pride about Aldar's Foster + Partners-designed Central Market project - a 5.2 million m2 development of three supertall towers and an Arabian souk. Dent inducts every single worker that enters the site.

"You would usually face three different inductions but as you're going to be with highly-trained HSE experts throughout, you'll just have the one. We run through the protocol in the event of a fire - exactly where I have to go, how I get there and what I have to do - and then it's time to meet the other HSE specialists on site."

With over 6,000 men on site at any one time, Dent stresses the importance of remaining safe and vigilant at all times, as well as leading by example.

"That's so important," chimes in Geoff Bottomley, the health, safety and environment manager for Arabian Construction Company (ACC). "We obviously get a big influx of Asian workers. Yesterday, they were farmers, traders or fishermen and today they're working 80 floors up on a construction site."

How then do the HSE specialists bridge this safety and knowledge gap?

"It's all about training and tool boxes. We tool box and tool box and tool box them," continues Bottomley. "Every Saturday morning at eight o'clock, the foremen deliver talks on a topic of their choice. There are 16 members of the safety team working here on Central Market, all of them speak both English and Asian languages."

All of the HSE guys accompanying me today - Aldar's head of HSE Andrew Broderick, Aldar HSE executive Reju Jose Manjooran and ACC project manager Pierce O'Donnell are also lending their expertise to the site visit - have horror stories to tell about the state of sites and workers when they first arrived in the Middle East. The battle, they claim, has been to completely change the safety culture. It's a fight they seem to have won; when the Ministry of Labour visited the Central Market site last month, they didn't find a single worker lacking the suitable PPE.

As we make our way to the workers' carriage elevator, Aldar's top health and safety man, Broderick, points out the unit where chemicals and flammables are stored securely and, most importantly, away from the towers.

Flammable materials being kept on-site, along with sparks produced by hot works, are the major causes of fires on construction sites, explains O'Donnell.

"The containers are well-protected and workers take up flammables on a daily basis," he explains. "One of the challenges in promoting HSE on-site here is obviously communication, due to unskilled workers coming from so many places, but, compared to my experience doing this in the UK, in some ways it's easier. Workers here have yet to acquire any bad habits. You tell them once and they listen."

We all step into the lift and are quickly rewarded with a stunning view over Abu Dhabi as we climb to the 67th floor.

"You'll notice we keep slabs extremely clean," says ACC's Bottomley. "It's a simple thing but effective at reducing risk quickly."Stepping out onto the slab, he points out the safety features present on every floor throughout the entire construction process. Each level has a fire hose with a length sufficient for reaching all areas of the floor; there's a fire alarm button too, while all cradles also have a button so that operators can sound the alarm if they observe a fire.

In each stairwell there are site plans, showing workers exactly where they need to go in the event of an incident, as well as all relevant contact numbers. Fire action and first aid notices appear on the walls in English, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic and Bengali. Staircases between floors also all feature emergency lighting throughout the construction process.

"From Aldar's point of view, there are three drivers of health and safety," explains Broderick. "Moral, legal and financial.

"We take our moral responsibility extremely seriously. We want people to feel safe and secure when working on one of our sites. Our HSE policy is contractual - it's in every document and all contractors get a copy, which is updated each year. Contractors such as Atkins and ACC also have site-specific contracts that will be completely individual to the project. No two projects will be alike."

"And, finally, there's the financial driver. Aldar, of course, has very good insurance for a project like this. Things like fire hoses on every level up to two below the top current working level is stipulated by insurance, which is very expensive. It pays for us to go that step further."

As far as regulations are concerned, Broderick highlights the fact that local authorities are fast catching up to those of western countries, with six sets of international codes set to be introduced later this year.

"Aldar has already been contacted about using our projects for case studies," he beams. "In many ways, until now, we've had to be self-governing, as we've a huge reputation. Very few developers have HSE teams, relying on the project manager instead. We want to pave the way - safety is about lives. Sometimes, being a developer is not about financial decisions; it's about doing the right thing."

And working with the right partners, it seems.

"We're really happy with ACC - they take it all very seriously. They're experts in high-rises, but also experts in fire safety," says Broderick, pointing out the net protection and triple barriers around the edges of the slab - regulations only require doubles.

So, I ask, hoping that I'm not tempting fate with my theoretical question, what exactly would happen if there was a fire on-site right now?

Bottomley fields this one. "Once the alarm has been raised, everyone would head to their designated assembly point where fire wardens - trained by third party assessors - control the area. Foremen count the men and wardens count the foremen, while guards control the street."

There are regular drills on-site and the last one took 18 minutes in total, although this figure will obviously increase slightly as the building height increases.

A significant part of the process follows each drill when the HSE team discusses any problems that arose and how to put them right.

"Our priorities are to prevent fires in the first place, then to identify them quickly and finally for trained workers to deal with them," adds Dent.

"We take pictures, we run Powerpoint presentations and we also have a completely blame free culture here, which is as imperative as the communication."

At the heart of all that Aldar, ACC, Atkins and EC Harris are doing at Central Market lies the principles behind BuildSafe, for which Broderick is the Abu Dhabi spokesperson. Aldar will only work with contractors that are signed up with BuildSafe, he says, and the BuildSafe notices and instructional diagrams decorating the site back up this claim.

"If there are any incidents, BuildSafe investigates them and encourages the sharing of knowledge rather than covering up mistakes. That's how the industry improves."

It can be easy to see a construction site - especially one for a project as large as Central Market - as a hundred mini-projects, a thousand small jobs, a million separate tasks...and, in many ways, that's true. Workers arrive, head to their floor, their section, their duty for the day and rarely interact.

However, having spent an hour or so on-site here it demonstrates just how uniting HSE can be.

"No matter what problems exist between the client, the contractor and sub-contractors - and, of course, issues do occur - everyone wants the same thing when it comes to health and safety. We're all pulling in the same direction," explains Broderick.

It must be good to know, when you're 67 floors up, carrying out hot works, that should anything happen, 6,000 men and a whole lot of safety procedures have got your back.

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