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Sat 20 Jan 2007 12:00 AM

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IOSH experiences the peaks and pitfalls of on-site safety

The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health is a worldwide body for health and safety professionals, offering guidance on standards and best practice. Christopher Sell talks to Chris Horn, chairman of the Middle East branch to see how the organisation is planning to transform the region's variable safety record.

Can you summarise what the remit of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is?

It’s a professional, not-for-profit organisation that was founded in 1945. It is a UK body that has developed internationally and sets professional standards. It supports and develops members and provides authoritative advice and guidance on health and safety issues.

Our Dubai-based branch, which opened in 2006, covers the whole of the Middle East, which is a massive area – the practicalities of that mean we cannot cover everywhere. People often think the Middle East is Dubai but it’s not, we have members in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example.

One of our main aims is to try and bring about a better quality of health and safety standards. There are many guidelines operating in India, for example, which are not recognised in the west, but we want to demonstrate their standards could be used as an equivalent elsewhere if guidelines are improved. This, of course, is easier said than done because of the way these things are dealt with.

We also offer assistance and advice to governments, and we encourage relationships between government departments, because there isn’t a great deal of communication between them.

Was the reason the IOSH established itself in Dubai a result of the growth in construction within the region?

Not necessarily. I think with the Middle East, as a whole, the IOSH realised there were a lot of members working in the region, therefore they had a right for representation. There was no one incident, it is just part of the natural evolution.

On the IOSH website you are quoted as saying a lot still needs to be done – what were you referring to?

I would say, working in the UK for a number of years and since arriving here, I have come to fully realise the value of law. There needs to be a bit more here, there isn’t enough enforcement and there is more emphasis on workers’ welfare than health and safety.

When it comes to health and safety, people don’t think about the root causes. There should be three reasons why health and safety needs to be considered: legal compliance; the financial advantages compared with the cost of an accident; and the moral argument – being aware of your fellow man. Out here the law is in place, but the enforcement of the law is weak.

If you talk to the average UK construction worker, they will say, ‘of course we don’t come to work to be injured’. Here, you have groups of labourers – who will care if they die of lung disease in 20 years time? No one will even know about it – you only have to walk around a construction site to see what precautions labourers take from inhalation.

Is there a mentality that the workforce is expendable?

I wouldn’t say that, I think that is unfair. I suppose with particular management, you can see the reasons how it would happen – they are under pressure and you have all this labour, it’s cheap and there is plenty of it.

Also, you have this big cultural difference and the perception is completely different. In many cases the labour workforce here is illiterate – some almost certainly cannot speak English and communication is extremely difficult. Therefore, the way the labour force is managed here is different – in some cases, you have ‘gang-masters’, who will instruct their team to do things, and the labourers may not totally understand the instruction, so they do as they are told because if they don’t, it will get them into trouble.

If you could change one thing, what would it be?

One thing I would like to see is senior management taking more responsibility, which is what you would expect from the UK. The law is there, but, for example – take a fatal accident, the police will come in, do an investigation, round up people for questioning and at the end of day, blood money is paid, which is cheap by our standards. I know of one company, where should someone suffer a fatal accident at work, the family would receive £500,000 [US $980,000], which by our standard is laughable.

I am a bit altruistic in the fact that I believe the only way we are going to tackle this is through morals. For example, I heard of a few workers who were sending their money back to an entire village in Sri Lanka – so if a worker dies the ripples go a long way.

But progress has been made, despite the fact there is a long way to go. You cannot go past a site now without seeing huge numbers of signs with safety advice, but it’s step by step. The next stage is to educate the line management structure, but the job is hard with such a mobile, transient population and it has to be implemented into procedures. If you look at the big projects, like Dubai Mall, Burj Dubai and Terminal Three at Dubai Airport, they have very high standards of safety. This is because there is a massive effort and high profile.

Is that enough?

No, another change must happen, and that is to establish good data on accidents. Take the UK as a model; the UK Health and Safety Executive produce very detailed reports; you know exactly what the problems are and you can focus your resources on them.

Here, I don’t think there are any official statistics – if there are, they are not published. There needs to be more transparency, it is a different mindset. For instance, we know how many construction deaths have taken place in the UK, it’s broken down – whereas here, I wouldn’t have a clue how many deaths have occurred on building sites.

So what hope do you have for the future of health and safety in Dubai?

I’d like to see enforcement of existing law, and law reform in line with a move towards a European type of law. I want to see that enforcement process, and I would like to see senior management held accountable.

There is a tendency to say it’s a simple problem, but it isn’t, it’s a complex problem. You’ve got language, culture, not very good legislation and not very good enforcement. At the end of day, health and safety is a western concept, and that is what we are currently changing.

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