By Monika Grzesik
The growing reliance on unskilled labour in the industry means the right kind of training is vital for quality and safety on site. Monika Grzesik talks to contractors to see what can be improved with regard to training workers.
As the demand for labour in the construction industry continues to escalate, contractors are finding it increasingly difficult to source skilled workers from overseas markets.
Many resort to hiring thousands of unskilled labourers from overseas to meet their needs.
But in an already dangerous working environment, it's a trend that raises the potential for things to go wrong.
"In terms of causes of accidents on site, the thing that most people commonly point to is the fact that the labourers come from backgrounds that aren't connected to construction, and are put in construction positions because the supply of really skilled labour just cannot meet the demands," said Chris Doyle, head of environment, health & safety & sustainability, Bovis Lend Lease. Doyle is a pioneering member of the BuildSafeDubai group, a new organisation of contractors aiming to raise the standard of safety in the construction industry. The group aims to improve the quality of training provided to labourers across all sectors of the industry, which in many cases is falling short of adequate.
"The training offered depends on the contractor," added Doyle.
"A lot of contractors will have an orientation or induction programme, where they say ‘this is what we expect on a generic construction site', and provide basic safety training. And then on each site the workers go to they will be inducted on the site rules and what's expected, and good and bad practice. It's the quality of those inductions and orientations that have sometimes been questioned."
There is currently no regulation governing the basic skills required for a construction worker, so the pressure is on individual contractors to ensure that their workforce is equipped with the necessary skills to work on site.
David Bass, health and safety manager, Al Naboodah Contracting, admits to facing problems of an unskilled workforce and says the company is investing heavily in training.
"The workers are not as skilled as they could be. We did a full check of all of our carpenters and graded them ‘A', ‘B' and ‘C.' ‘A' was somebody who was fully proficient, ‘B' was somebody who was okay with manual work but needed training up with the bigger machinery, while ‘C' would be a ‘hammer and saw' man. In doing this we also found many workers who fell into the ‘D' category. They were taken off and not allowed to hold the category of carpenter - they were moved into the category of unskilled labourer because they didn't have the skills to be on site. This is a big recruitment problem for us," said Bass.
Al Naboodah has an in-house training programme, which covers 54 different areas including concreting, excavations, shuttering, blinding, scaffolding and health and safety at three dedicated training rooms. "I have two full-time training officers. They will take 30 labourers a day, 11 days out of 14, as we have a rotation system. At the end of the year, a big chunk of our 8,000 labourers should get through the training, and we're always looking for ways of improving that," added Bass.
Al Futtaim Carillion has adopted a new initiative whereby labourers must complete a three-day basic skills course at a training centre set up at its headquarters, before they go on site.
"There is a lot of unskilled labour coming from India. We do the best we can when we bring them from India, and we give them a trade test, but what used to happen is that when we recruited them they went straight on site, and then the obligation was left to the foreman to train them, which was a lot pressure," said Derek Lewis, operations director, Al Futtaim Carillion.
The course covers carpentry, masonry, scaffolding and health and safety. There is also a specialist course for stair fixing. Lewis points out that although the skills are basic, many are completely new to the foreign recruits.
"We use different types of systems here to those used in India," he said. "Formwork is mainly used in the western world, and you couldn't build high rises with the sort of systems that are used in India. We are using western systems so we have got to give them western training."
Another example is the ‘scafftag' system, which indicates if scaffolding is safe to use.
"If the scafftag is pulled out it means you don't use the scaffolding. The workers coming straight from India might not understand this. The scaffolding might not have any planks on it and they'll still walk on it. You have to teach them all of this before they go on site. What they do in India is very basic compared to what they are doing here."
Lewis is convinced that the new system will help to maintain safety on site.
"It saves on injuries. These projects are huge now - every project is a major project. You can get hurt just by walking on site, so you have got to learn these things before you go there."
While it is clear that some contractors are taking the initiative with regard to training, standards vary throughout the industry. "There are smaller companies out there, a lot of subcontractors or sub-sub contractors that aren't doing anything," added Bass.
Bass believes that in order for the situation to improve there needs to be a ‘base level' skills requirement introduced.
"One of the things I hope we can push for is some sort of competency school, perhaps run by the bigger contractors so that we can have a base level. This will outline the skills we expect from these guys. In anything like this you would need different levels within it - we could establish what would make an ‘A',‘B' or ‘C'. Pooling resources would be beneficial to the whole industry here."