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Mon 3 May 2004 04:00 AM

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Taking charge of health and safety management

There are some signs that local companies are improving when it comes to health and safety. But Middle East contractors must learn their responsibilities stretch beyond supplying hardhats and steel toe-capped boots. They must install a strong health & safety ethos throughout the organisation to guarantee the security of its workers on-site

Taking charge of health and safety management|~|Safety Body.jpg|~|Safety on site is the responsibility of everybody, not just the safety officer|~|Finding the person on-site that is responsible for health & safety should be an easy question to answer. But all too often the response depends on the type of people you ask, the industry they are from and the region they are working in.

For construction companies in Europe and the USA, safety for the workers and public and care for property and the environment are a number one priority as far as senior management is concerned. Clients are very demanding with regard to health and safety and will only deal with companies, which are not only seen as caring for their workforce, but have safety planning, safety management and performance and have the records to back it up.

For these organisations health and safety issues tend to dominate the boardroom agenda. It is vital for the business to conform to the highest standards to guarantee the safety of those who may be affected by tasks, operations or processes under their control.

However, it’s doubtful whether health and safety requirements command the same priority in this region in the Middle East. Although some companies have made a concerted effort to introduce health & safety best practices, many still just pay lip service to the issue.

Levels of health and safety management are often determined by the requirements of the either the client and/or consultants and contractors. Generally, most parties in this region will try to get away with as little cover and action as possible. All too often safety concerns give way to the temptation to save money.

Unfortunately the true costs of accidents are never realised by contractors, and like the proverbial iceberg, the direct costs seen at the surface are only a small proportion of the indirect costs. So, who is responsible for safety on construction sites?

When asked, the majority of people in the local construction industry point at the safety person (be he a manager, officer, engineer or whatever title he has on your project) and say: ‘He is!’ However, even if companies follow guidelines and provide one safety officer for every 150 to 200 workers, it is not physically possible to be in all places at all times, and watch every single worker. But isn’t that what supervisors are for, are they not? They just have to supervise work in a safe way and their required production will be achieved.

So what about the rest of the construction team?

Clients may naturally try to distance themselves from the construction process as far as possible because if there is a serious accident no one can be implicated.

It would be interesting if the Middle East were to ever followed the system in Europe where since 1994 the Construction (design and management) Regulations — known as CDM Regs — have been in place.

These Regulations place duties on the client to contribute to the health and safety of the workings of a construction project and require him, by law, to carry out certain duties before starting the project. The client has to appoint at pre-tender stage a planning supervisor to coordinate and manage health and safety during the design and early stages of the preparation.

It is then the duty of the second client appointment, the principle contractor to co-ordinate and manage the health and safety issues during the construction works.

What about the consultant, the un-biased representative acting as the link between client and contractor? They have responsibilities for health and safety also. There was an article in Construction Week recently regarding a fatal accident where the legal heirs of the deceased held not only the contractor liable for the death, but the consultants also, as they had an obligation to monitor the health and safety on the site. It is important for the consultant to be aware that he too has a role to play in the safe operation of a project.

When assessing a contractor’s approach to the health & safety issues, the best place to start is an examination of the company’s Health and Safety Policy.

The policy should clearly state a commitment to health and safety from the top management of the organisation. The absence of that commitment is a clear sign that the safety culture is missing.

There are several clear signs of how seriously the site management team is committed to health and safety. For instance, are the the workers wearing PPE (personal protective equipment)? Are the hazards in the construction of the project assessed correctly? Are the risks factors identified and the control measures formulated and implemented?

Even if there is strong commitment from the top management, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been successfully implemented by the line managers on site. In many cases, it is personnel who have a priority for production rather than safety, which occupy key positions on-site and decide how the project is run.

They are the ones, that when asked about safety responsibility reply that safety is not their responsibility, but that of the safety officer. They are the ones who create unsafe conditions and they are the ones whose workers get killed or injured. In reality, it’s people that create the unsafe conditions that are the ones who are responsible to manage them safely.

Companies can provide all the PPE kit and safety lectures to their staff, but ultimately workers are at the mercy of the supervisor overseeing the work. Whether labourers are aware of it or not can decide their fate; and the consequences may be deadly.

So, who is responsible for safety on construction sites? The truth is that we are all responsible either as individuals or as construction team members.

However, the company is charged with the responsibility of providing the means for its workers to perform their job safely, whether this be a safe place of work, provision of PPE, welfare facilities and so on.

In Europe and the USA the head of the organisation or a board member appointed, as safety director is ultimately responsible for health and safety of the operations.

In Europe fatal accidents now come under the headline of Corporate Killing, something that will no doubt send a chill down the spine of some general managers in this region should it move in this direction.

But wait a moment, any breach of provisions relating to health and safety here in the UAE are punishable by fines up to Dhs10 000 and/or a six-month jail term.

In the end it all comes down to the question: ‘Have we done everything possible to avoid any type of accident on the project?’

All levels of management and supervision need to ask this question of themselves each and every day.

If they do, they are accepting their part of the burden as a shared responsibility.

So please, in future, let us all accept our duties for safe working and don’t just point to the poor safety officer as the sole bearer for the responsibility for safety.

By DW Hadfield

Please note that the views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of any company he may be associated with.||**||

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