We catch up with Walid Feghali, who heads up the Safety, Security and Protection Services division for 3M Gulf.
3M is a US-based, globally operating conglomerate famous for producing a huge variety of products. SFS catches up with Walid Feghali, who heads up the Safety, Security and Protection Services division for 3M Gulf.
Perhaps better known for Scotch Tape and Post-It notes, 3M's acquisition of safety product manufacturer Aearo in November 2007 in a deal worth US$1.2 billion means that the global conglomerate is now the world's largest producer of head and neck protection, ranging from respirators, safety goggles, hearing protection and helmets, among others.
With the number of construction projects taking place in the GCC region, demand for worker protection products keeps growing, according to Walid Feghali, country business leader for 3M Gulf's Safety, Security and Protection Services division.
We appreciate it when companies monitor how their staff are wearing safety materials to make sure they get the full advantage of their investment. - Walid Feghali
"We have invested in a big team, we have five people in the UAE, one in Kuwait and four in Saudi Arabia," says Feghali. "This team is not a joke. We are planning to add another three people because the business has been growing by at least 60% since 2006." Worldwide, the division clocked up sales worth $2.6 billion in 2007, 11% of its total sales for the entire year.
He attributes the success of the SSPS division in the Middle East to the sheer number of construction projects that have been taking place in the region. Feghali also remains confident that despite looming fears of a global slowdown or even a recession, demand for safety products will remain steady.
"Business will continue flowing [but] people will be a little more cautious," he says, referring to construction contractors. "Life goes on. As a contractor, you have a tower to complete and a deadline. If you don't do it, you will end up paying a huge penalty. So you need protection when you're doing all this welding and spraying and painting and so on."
Feghali reports that in his experience, attitudes to construction worker safety in the region can be variable, but that regular training in the correct use of safety products can go a long way to reducing risks, and indeed costs for contractors.
With the larger clients, a 3M team will go onsite and engage directly with the workers to ensure that safety equipment, such as regulators used during welding, are worn and used correctly. "It takes a lot of time and effort but we have to do it, and we appreciate it when companies monitor how their staff are wearing safety materials to make sure they get the full advantage of their investment," says Feghali.
However, the company finds that it is still having be proactive in ensuring such training and maintenance is carried out. "We usually have to initiate these training sessions," says Feghali. "I wish we had more people to go to every account and conduct more seminars. We go first to the key people generating 80% of our business, and we make sure on a regular basis that they're knowledgeable on how to use our materials."
One of the problems the company continues to find is that some contractors regard safety products as a one-off expense and don't replace equipment that becomes compromised through age. Feghali cites the example of the ubiquitous helmet worn by construction workers.
"Usually you see a lot of helmets in this market because construction is quite big. Has anyone ever asked a worker how long he has had a helmet?" he asks. "They're made of plastic and polycarbonate, and because of the UV, it will deteriorate. It may happen that this guy will have this helmet for two years and then a stone will hit it and it will break and he will be injured."
As a result, 3M are introducing a helmet that contains a UV indicator that will display when the helmet needs to be replaced. "We believe this has a huge potential because of the amount of construction here," says Feghali.
As ever, budgets remain an issue for contractors, but Feghali points out that protecting workers doesn't necessarily have to be expensive and it can be a key part of preserving a company's reputation.
"We go to the management and explain ‘you have your image, you have your ethics, you have your people working for you, you need to provide them with protection,'" says Feghali.
"If price is a hurdle, we have low-cost products you can afford. If you're a contractor, don't tell me you can't afford less than a dirham for a respirator."Protecting workers also protects productivity. Feghali cites the example of welding hoods as an area where big gains can be made in both worker safety and production.
Positive pressure welding hoods alleviate the need for a welder to jerk their head back to break from the task, which can cause damage to the neck, but also means that the welder has to temporarily stop working.
"We have case studies that someone using [a positive pressure hood], compared to someone using a traditional welding hood, will be more productive," says Feghali. "Every corporation needs to improve its productivity."
Nevertheless, he feels that more still needs to be done to alert contractors on the need to invest in worker protection. 3M has already worked with the UAE government on awareness raising initiatives.
"Contractors are trying to cut corners. We need the help of the GCC governments to raise awareness so contractors invest in protecting their workers," says Feghali.
Part of this work with the UAE government has been involvement with the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (ESMA), the state body that provides standards for a variety of fields, including worker safety.
"Through our interaction with ESMA, they follow both American and European standards," says Feghali. "In my opinion, I think European standards are a bit higher and more comprehensive for people at work. They're very detailed and to the last point."
He makes it clear though that the US standards are still comprehensive, and the fact that use of European and US regulations means that safety standards in the UAE may be higher than in other countries across the MENA region.
Protecting people is crucial, both from an economical and ethical perspective. "If anything goes into the eye, the eye is dead. You can't reverse it. Lungs can be damaged because of gases.
You can't repair them. Damaged hearing, you can't rectify it. It's all medically proven," warns Feghali. "[This is] what may happen to your people who are producing success for yourself and your company. They will definitely appreciate it when you spend budgets in terms of protecting them."