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Sat 27 Jan 2007 12:00 AM

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Health & Safety: Is now the time?

Once again, health and safety standards are on top of the agenda following the fire at Fortune Tower in Dubai earlier this month. Angela Giuffrida reports on how fire safety procedures on buildings under construction in the region could be improved.

The tragic fire at Fortune Tower happened just days before health, safety and fire experts descended in Dubai for Intersec Middle East.

While they would have brought with them their ideas on how ‘best practise' could be adopted to improve the overall standard of safety on construction sites across the region, the accident prompted much discussion on current procedures in place to protect workers.

Many would have seen the event unfold before their own eyes, as scenes of black smoke coming out of the building's 29th floor were rolled out on TV screens across the world within minutes of the fire breaking out.

And as Neil Wallington, former chief fire officer of the UK's Devon Fire & Rescue, pointed out: ‘it's a sad fact, but disasters do make news globally'.

As investigations got underway into the cause of the fire, health and safety experts called into question the procedures in place for preventing fires in high-rise buildings under construction in the UAE, as well as whether evacuation drills are sufficiently carried out and effectively communicated to workers.

"In Dubai, they tend to consider fire safety more when the buildings are finished and not before," said Hasan Al Aradi, managing director of RRC Middle East Training and Consultancy in Bahrain.

A chief fire officer from Washington Hall International Training in the UK added: "Fire detectors and protective systems need to be in place, as well as access to water supplies; even if you have temporary water sprinkler systems in buildings being constructed - my observation is that this isn't happening much here. It's important that these precautions are in place.

"Also, construction design is changing constantly in Dubai - you've got thousands of designs being produced in different ways. So when it comes to learning about a building's plan and layout, it's not just the construction companies that need to know this inside out, but the support services need to be fully aware of a building's layout so they are well prepared on how to evacuate when called on in an emergency."

The need for regular on-site fire drills, at least every two to three months, as well as better safety training programmes for labourers was also something experts called for, although such a diverse workforce in the UAE brings with it the language, educational and cultural barriers that can make communicating essential safety procedures a challenge.

"Some members of the workforce cannot read or write - so you have to know how to effectively get the message across," said Lisa Fowlie, chartered safety and health practitioner and president of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (ISOH).

"And if something goes wrong and the company gets in trouble, how does the public react? Therefore it's important to ensure that the right standards are established and workers kept safe, not only so that they're efficient to carry on working for you, but also to protect your reputation and brand."

According to Chris Horn, the chairman of the Middle East branch of ISOH, although health and safety training programmes for labourers are slowly gathering prominence in the region, one area that needs to be paid closer attention is the building product supply chain and how the workforce is trained to use products, particularly when it come to storing and using hazardous materials.

"Here, health and safety tends to focus more on actual construction, but you need to follow the procedure throughout the whole supply chain, as there's a whole army of things going on," he said.

"The way in which products are manufactured and supplied, and how they're installed, needs to be looked at much more carefully."

Toby Hayward, regional QHSE manager for engineering and construction company, CH2Mhill, says that the increasing focus on projects in Dubai and region, and the fact that these projects are under the worldwide media spotlight, will go a long way in evolving the moral attitude towards health and safety.

"I've been in the region for about eight years and I've seen many major construction sites where health and safety standards have generally been good," he said.

"Although the health and safety law is in place, I think the moral attitude is starting to gather pace, especially with the media covering on-site accidents more - the public is saying ‘enough is enough, we don't want to see these accidents happening anymore'. So society is in fact pushing progress towards improving health and safety standards, and this is slowly happening in the construction sector."

“In Dubai, they tend to consider fire safety more when the buildings are finished and not before.” - Hasan Al Aradi, managing director, RRC Middle East Training and Consultancy, Bahrain.

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