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Mon 1 Jan 2007 09:29 AM

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Implementing Health & Safety

In the first FM Middle East feature to focus on health and safety in the Middle East, Becca Wilson catches up with IOSH Middle East secretary, Toby Hayward to find out how it is perceived in the region.

The year 2006 saw health and safety hit the headlines of many publications, drawing attention to the need for more awareness in the Middle East surrounding the issue.

There have been more and more companies awarded ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) or OHSAS (Occupational Health and Safety Assessment Series) certification but this doesn't necessarily mean they are taking H&S seriously.

Toby Hayward, secretary of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) said: "The standards organisation produce some very good guidance and very good standards for systems.

"However, the actual implementation and enforcement of proper rules and the training of people is a bigger investment than just a certification. I think that is what's forgotten sometimes."

He argues that certification is all well and good but if the company is not practicing what it preaches then there is no point.

"People like the certificate on the wall and to go further and make it a fully integrated system within a company, people to people, is much more important in my view."

Currently, the UAE has signed up to a number of International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions and also has three laws and regulations of the current occupational health system in the UAE - see box out on page 16.

Chairman of IOSH, Chris Horn, said: "I see the branch as a focus for the members to influence emerging initiatives in the region such as improved legislation and enforcement. In my time here (in the Middle East) I have already witnessed some very good health and safety practice, particularly in the oil and gas industry and the larger construction projects. However in other areas I believe that there is room for improvement and I would like to see us making a difference through leadership and example."

FMs need to make sure their company has an effective health and safety policy in place. It needs to be easily communicated to the workforce and should state the objectives of the company when it comes to the health and safety of its employees. "It should cover issues like training and it should be a commitment from management," said Hayward.

There can be many hazards within the workplace all waiting for an accident to happen. In a presentation on occupational health services in the UAE, Dr Ghassan Shaker, head of occupational health, Preventive Medicine Department, Ministry of Health, Abu Dhabi talked about the classification of workplace hazards.

He listed them as:

• Physical hazards - noise, vibration, temperature, light, radiation etc;

• Biological hazards - plants and vegetables, animals, man to man infections;

• Psychosocial hazards - vertical and lateral work relations;

• Ergonomic hazards - body positions at work;

• Chemical hazards - heavy metals, solvents, gases and vapors. When Hayward was asked about the hazards which are apparent in the Middle East, he said: "There are multiple. From slips, trips and falls to working at a height.

Even though that height may be minimal.

"I know someone who has stood on a brick and broke his hip. So you can actually have some horrific injuries from what you would consider a low risk environment."

He went on to talk about long-term hazards and concluded that sick building sydrome was a common one, along with ergonomics. He stressed the importance of companies taking all hazards into account and not just the high risk ones.

An effective health and safety policy could help reduce injuries within the workplace and have a positive knock on effect for the company. Less sick days means more work. Happier employees mean better concentration and productivity. And less costs mean more profit. It makes perfect business sense.

But it's worrying to hear many companies are budgeting for a certain number of low level employee deaths, instead of employee health and safety training.

If this is the case, it's no wonder the perception of health and safety in the Middle East region stands at non-existant.

It is also understandable why many people think that the mind-set of, "if a worker dies we'll just get another" is fact, as many companies (mainly in the construction industry) are well known for their lack of compassion when it comes to their low-skilled, poorly paid employees.

"Companies actually say, "ok, if we kill somebody this year it will cost us around US $60,000 (AED220,000) and we can budget that cost." But what isn't really accounted for are things like reputation. If an accident were to happen, it would get around quickly and your reputation would be on the line.

"Insurance premiums could also go up if your insurance company considers you a very unsafe company," added Hayward.

By implementing and abiding by a policy, companies can not only make a difference without being forced to abide by the law, they could also be seen as the leaders in best practice and benchmarking.

"If you look at any company today that's successful, Microsoft, Coca Cola, Volvo, Toyota - all of them have very, very stringent health and safety policies. They take them extremely seriously," said Hayward.

"This is not because they think it's a good idea, it's because they've realised if they have a healthy and safe workforce - the largest asset the company has - productivity and the quality of the product will increase because they will be focusing on the work they are doing, not on whether they are going to survive the day or not."

As it stands, Hayward believes that the majority of the workforce in the region does not have a healthy work-life balance.

"In Dubai it's perfectly normal to work a 75 to 90 hour week, in some industries it's expected. Even though the two day weekend law has been inplemented, many people still only have one day weekends," explained Hayward.

With many FM companies having to work the weekends, it's important to make sure somebody with the correct training and supervision is on site to make sure everything runs smoothly.

"It's been scientifically proven on many occasions that anything over a 50 hour week and you start not to produce," claimes Hayward.

The IOSH and Hayward are keen for the Government and any companies within the Middle East to get more involved in health and safety and urge anyone who wants more information to get in touch.

The Middle East IOSH branch was established in 2006 and currently has around 200 members. For more information, log on to
www.iosh.co.uk

UAE current occupational health system laws and regulations

• Federal law No. 8 (1980) on regulation of work relations. In its fifth article, it deals with workers safety and health and social care

- Decree No. 32 (1982) from the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs concerning ways and measures to be taken to protect the workers from occupational hazards

- Decree No. 37/2 (1982) from the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs about medical services to be provided by the employer

• Decree No. 11 (1989) about the organisational structure of the Ministry of Health placing the occupational health department under the cover of Directorate of Disease Control

• Decree No. 818 (1992) from The Council of Civil Service, concerning physical fitness criteria for employment in the public sector

UAE ILO conventions

• No. 1 (1919) on Limitation of Working Hours, certified in 1982

• No. 29 (1930) on Forced Work, certified in 1982

Hayward’s basic advice for FMs

1. For the region/country you are in, know the law. Find the law. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it isn’t. Talk to other colleagues and people who have been in the country for a while, they should be able to point you in the right direction. Most countries including Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE all have their labour laws on websites and they should have a H&S section.

2. Seek advice, not only through institutions like IOSH. In the Emirates we have the Emirates Safety Group who are a great pool of advice locally. There is also the American Society of Safety Engineers in the GCC who can give a great deal of advice. These guys work across the industry so would be able to advise or tell you where to go for good advice.

3. Use best practice from other regions or the regions you have come from. Although it may not be covered by law here, the best practice you bring from say the UK or America, you’re still protecting somebody and it’s still considered best practice. So use that.

4. Share best practice ideas. Obviously, something that works for you can work for somebody else if they are in a similar situation, so share it. It’s not a competition, we shouldn’t keep everything to ourselves and this needs to be communicated.

5. Encourage consultation and communication with your employees. Sometimes this can be a stumbling block, the biggest issue is language and culture. But I have found as soon as you bridge the language barrier, employees are very interested to talk to you about their health and safety and how it can be improved. Some of them have got some brilliant ideas that can be incorporated within your company. Not only does this help health and safety, it means they feel more part of a workforce. This can help employee retention and, in lots of cases, productivity.

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