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Sat 23 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Safe as houses?

Experts are delivering a mixed verdict on the state of the region's fire, security and safety industry.

Safe as houses?
Experts claim that standards in the GCC are now approaching best practice.
Safe as houses?
It is still often that safety clothing and equipment come as an afterthought to contractors.

Experts are delivering a mixed verdict on the state of the region's fire, security and safety industry.

Fire and safety standards across the Middle East have improved dramatically and now lie only a few levels below Europe. That was the message from many exhibitors at last week's security and safety exhibition, Intersec, in Dubai.

While the region has been responsible for many incredible developments and structures - none more so than the recently opened Burj Khalifa - many still view GCC countries as being behind best practice where security and safety are concerned, but industry experts say that is no longer the case.

"I was working here in 2003 and it was altogether different - very few regulations, especially regarding the fireproofing of steel," says Dr Herbert Weiss of the German firm Rutgers, which provides fireproof paint solutions for wood, steel and cabling.

"In the past three to six years that's changed and there are improvements all the time.

"Today, the safety and fireproofing sectors are seen as being as important as they are in Europe. With all the high-rises here in Dubai, for example, they really need to be, but the regulators have learned a lot."

Vimpex is a UK-based specialist in fire safety products and alarm systems with clients across the UAE. The company's Ken Pearce claims that standards in the GCC are now approaching best practice.

"Fire safety, certainly, is taken almost as seriously [as in Europe and North America] and there's definitely still a demand for high quality products," says Pearce.

The news on the surface is good; but just the smallest scratches reveal that not everyone working across the safety industry feels as confident and, given the glistening towers that pepper skylines across the GCC, it's troubling to find that fall protection is an area where shortcuts seem standard.

"There's a growing awareness of safety practices but many contractors concentrate on price rather than safety standards," admits Nishith Dand, director of Sure Safety, a company providing safety and protection gear for construction site workers.

"Of course, we're talking about life itself here but, speaking more in terms of bottom lines, small companies not meeting standards can face fines heavy enough to bankrupt them.

"Still, all too often, the right safety clothing and equipment come as an afterthought; contractors simply don't budget for the right products from the very beginning."

Vertiqual CEO Roland Szasz agrees: "The market is splitting. The more specialist industries - rescue, law enforcement, the marine sector - they see the value of buying high quality, certified harnesses, webbing and ropes. But the average investor, entrepreneur or MD doesn't want to spend money, so they look for the cheapest alternatives."

Some of the problem, says Szasz, could lie in the transitory nature of construction workers that come here.

"Managers see workers come and go and, therefore, perhaps they're a little reticent to buy anything but the cheapest shoes, helmets and harnesses."One thing that everyone agrees on is that the industry requires more internationally recognised safety standards which, in turn, must be checked by authorities.

"In Europe, there are standards across all countries," continues Szasz. "If there's a fall, for example, European regulations say that the harness and rope must be removed from operations - we have a new patented system which allow line managers to see which harnesses have been involved in a fall.

"Contractors need to invest in equipment certified by respectable institutes - it's too easy to knock out a dummy certificate on a computer these days," adds Szasz.

"Absolutely," agrees Weiss. "We've seen certificates being used in the region that pertain to one product but certify completely different materials altogether."

Dand has had similar experiences too. "There have to be thorough checks. There are workers operating 70 floors up in what looks like a harness from the ground, but in reality is no more than some canvas or material. That said, better contractors now are looking for specific, technical harnesses and helmets that suit each job - not just a one-size-fits-all solution. Those are the contractors that will prosper," he added.

Most in the industry are taking matters of health and safety extremely seriously and are looking for regulations, checks and guidance. But, there's a vast opinion that authorities are found wanting in this area.

"Product manufacturers appear to be frustrated by the lack of published information coming from Dubai Civil Defense about their ‘Product Approval Scheme'," explains one industry observer.

"And there is further opacity concerning the reorganisation of all the emirate's civil defense departments under one General Directorate, to be run by the senior officers of Dubai Civil Defense, and how this affects product approval in the other emirates, particularly Abu Dhabi."

Time then for health & safety bodies to step up and provide the leadership and framework that the industry is calling for. Time too for developers and contractors to take the initiative and place safety and security, both during and after construction, at the centre of their projects.

Vimpex's Pearce says that regional designers, developers and contractors need to think of security, fire and safety as early in the design process as possible.

"Generally, the thought for fire protection comes too late and when it does, it's rarely according to the initial specifications. Fire safety needs to be considered from the design or outline stages onwards and certainly well before a project goes out to tender," says Pearce.

The economic slowdown has given an excuse to many owners, contractors and specifiers for cutting back in certain areas but the message coming loud and clear is that under no circumstances should safety be one of those.

Especially in a region where some of the tallest towers define the skylines.

"The prospect of a fire in a high-rise is very serious indeed and the results could be catastrophic," warns Thomas Bell-Wright, CEO and chief technical officer of Thomas Bell-Wright International Consultants, highlighting the need for the highest quality fire products. In addition to providing façade and curtain wall consultancy services, Bell-Wright's company owns the region's only dedicated device for fire testing products.

"Firefighters here still lack high-rise experience and evacuation from skyscrapers is obviously complicated. So it's important that products and materials are legitimately tested, certified, labeled and able to contain any fires within the building. It's critical that products are fire tested and certified but also that the certification is checked. Dubai will, at some point, be tested with a fire in a high-rise project and we need to hope it's up to the job," he said.

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surfer 10 years ago

I would beg to differ with the first paragraph of this story. UAE has a long, long, long way to go to improving safety in workplaces and fire safety etc is an area in dire need of impovement. I think Matt (the author of this story) may want to consult real experts in the field before making unconfirmed and unsubstatiated comments in a story like this from so called experts selling safety products and gear. Theye have a micro view of the market the supply to and thats all in general...yes improvements have been made, but overall the safety and fire safety situation is far from satisfactory in the UAE and is way below standards in Western countries. This is being addreessed in Abu Dhabi through the goverenment iniatitves and EHSMS but still is in early stages of implementation and will be many years before real change is really made and the results seen. so Matt please be aware that reporting of this nature is not helping push for improvement but rather hindering it as many businesses will just sit back and say ..we are ok so no more real effort is needed as readers read what they want to from a story. A dangerous outcome.