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Sun 2 May 2004 04:00 AM

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Unsafe tools inflict long term injuries

The number of fatal accidents during April has put worker health & safety in the UAE’s construction industry under the spotlight. However, improving worker health management isn’t just about improving the working environment on-site. Local contractors have to start investing in modern tools that combat the effects of vibration and rebarring and improve tool maintenance. Construction Week investigates the tools of the trade...

Unsafe tools inflict long term injuries|~|Tool Body.jpg|~|New tools can reduce the affects of vibration on the operator|~|With a number of fatal accidents across the UAE, April was a bad month for the construction industry. Although these tragedies grabbed the headlines, the local workers are faced with another threat, much closer to home. It is a fact that many workers are still using old and poorly maintained tools which can cause numerous long term injuries to operators.

The most common form of complaint resulting directly from the operation of tools relates to vibration. When workers use power tools such as breakers, drills, sanders and power hammers significant levels of vibration are created. Over time this constant vibration can lead to medical problems such as Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS) and Vibration White Finger (VWF).

No figures chronicling how serious a problem this condition is in the UAE are available, however, records from UK indicate that there are approximatly 3000 new cases of HAVS each year.

The condition damages the blood circulatory system, nervous system, and the muscles and joints in the hands.

The first symptoms are often overlooked when fingertips begin to tingle or turn white, but with time this develops into severe pain, numbness and loss of sense of touch and grip strength.

In the most severe cases the fingers can turn green and even black requiring amputation. To make matters worse the symptoms may not appear for months or years after a worker first begins to work with vibrating tools.

Recognising the seriousness of this condition, manufacturers have taken steps to develop tools with reduced vibration, or that protect the operator with cushioning, counterweights or automatic cut out systems.

The European manufacturers in particular have gone down this route. Hilti for example developed the TE-905 AVR tool with reduced vibration levels. Although it improves the workers lot, this tool was not even introduced into the UAE. As always the local market is overly cost conscious and not prepared to pay more for a tool, even though it may protect the worker from HAVS for a relatively small increment in price.

“There does seem to be a reticence to site safety in direct relevance to the user. It wouldn’t be allowed in Europe,” says Colin Mackay, branch manager, HSS Hire Shops.

This attitude is largely a result of the way that the market operates. The margins in the UAE are infamously slim, so any increase to the cost of a project is met with considerable scrutiny. Given such a mindset, an investment in a more expensive tool that may prevent a worker suffering from a condition in the future is deemed to have little value. Aggressive construction schedules also mean that any slowing down of the project is also poorly received, so any added safety procedures that consume time stand little chance of being adopted.

The same is true for other types of tools that have been designed to incorporate safety. For example, there are tools available that can detect rebar, so that it can be avoided when drilling. Operating rather like a metal detector, ferro scan tools can detect rebar and inform the operator how deep it is. Only a few of these tools have been supplied to the UAE market, suggesting that the local practice is to drill and find out. However such a cavalier attitude can easily lead to broken wrists if a worker strikes rebar or piping.

With the ferro scan tools an automatic cut off systems prevent this problem, but again they come at an extra cost and consequently are not as popular in the UAE as they are in Europe where they are widely used because they reduce site insurance costs.

“There are all sorts of gadgets you can fit to tools to improve safety, but it’s the cost that is the stumbling block,” says Mackay. “This market is so competitive, with the Chinese tools the cases is often ‘buy two, get one free’. The safety aspect doesn’t even come into the equation,” says Mackay.

For high tech equipment market, safety features are beginning to come onto the market. To a large extent this is because the added cost is more easily absorbed by the higher price tag that high end tools come with. Safety features are slowly becoming more established in the market, but there is a long way to go,” says Colin Davidson, regional manager, Mazrui Engineering Products.

Although there are tools on the market with added safety features, maintenance is the most important factor to consider when it comes to the safe operation of tools. Keeping a tool in good working order not only reduces the risk of HAVS and VWF, but prevents a whole host of other potentially more serious problems. Despite costing relatively little and saving money in the long run, preventative maintenance is not as common as it should. “I am not deriding the operator, but he often doesn’t know how the tool works and has no knowledge of how to maintain a combustion engine, so the tool is just run into the ground,” says Mackay. If simple maintenance procedures like putting oil into the tool are overlooked, which they often are, it will lead to overheating and could cause a fire.

“Support is crucial, especially when running a hire business. You have to maintain the tool constantly, because the operator certainly won’t, and it is the operator that is at risk,” adds Mackay.

Running on 240v the electrical supply in the UAE does little to make tools safer to use. Especially when the majority of projects underway in the UAE are in close proximity to water. If a lower voltage, such as the 110v system used in the USA were used, dangers would still exist, but the severity would be reduced.

It would therefore seem that the overly competitive nature of the UAE market for tools means there is little space for safety. But safety features are widely used in Europe and the Far East. Does this mean these markets are not as competitive? It is fair to say that margins are tough in the UAE but this is not unique and other markets experience the same difficulties. So perhaps the real reason why safety features have not been adopted is a question of labour costs. In a market where an operator costs Dhs10-15/day it is no wonder that the industry has little interest in more expensive tools that protect the long-term well being of the operator, as he can quite easily be replaced. ||**||

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