Capital ramps up safety push

The municipality plans to step up efforts to fine health and safety violators on construction sites.

Construction workers work away to clean up remains of a crane that collapsed earlier that morning on Tuesday, July 12, 2011, during the morning rush hour in downtown Abu Dhabi. No one was hurt and only road blocks and the crane itself suffered damages. (Silvia Razgova/The National)
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ABU DHABI // The municipality plans to start cracking down on health and safety violators on construction sites in the coming year, as tentative statistics show the number of reported accidents increased in 2011.

In November, officials stepped up inspections and began more aggressively issuing fines.

"Our strategy was not to fine directly," said Abdulaziz Zurub, head of health, safety and environment (HSE) at the municipality.

"We started with awareness and site visits, but now we are turning to fines and the court process. We need to bring best practices into Abu Dhabi, but we need support from the companies that are the ones who need to change to a culture of safety."

Anyone fined for one of 32 violations from municipal inspectors will need to pay before any new permits will be issued.

Earlier this year, the municipality introduced a blacklist for repeat violators. Depending on the severity of the violations, a company can be barred from operating in the capital for three, six or 12 months.

The Department of Economic Development is working with the municipality to revoke offenders' licences.

Fines can range from Dh1,000 for failing to make approved plans and permits available at the site to Dh50,000 for violations including demolition without proper permits and building beyond approved dimensions.

The measure is part of the municipality's efforts to increase HSE awareness on construction sites. This month marks one year since the municipality began requiring contractors and consultants to submit comprehensive safety plans before receiving building permits.

In the capital, about 20 inspectors carry out daily inspections, and about 3,000 random inspections have been completed this year.

Though official numbers from the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad) reported a 19 per cent decrease in workplace fatalities, this year has seen a spike in accidents on construction sites, Mr Zurub said.

The increased numbers could be attributed to increased reporting.

"Our investigators are identifying the lessons to be learned," he said. "Why it happened, what is the root cause, how we can avoid it."

This is the first year the municipality has collected statistics, but numbers are not yet available.

In 2010, there were 551 workplace deaths, a drop from 680 in 2009, according to data provided by Haad. Numbers for 2011 will be available early next year.

Falling from height and being struck by falling objects remain the most common hazards for labourers on construction sites, according to the Haad report. Mr Zurub said unsafe scaffolding and open shafts are common violations.

No fire incidents have been reported this year.

"Our inspectors are patrolling all the sites," Mr Zurub said. "We have big plans for next year, getting the message out about safety issues."

Some experts said more needs to be done to ensure contractors understand the regulations.

"Most contractors don't know what the municipality is requiring," said Saif Hamam, a business development consultant at the Emirates Institute for Health and Safety, an Abu-Dhabi based organisation that offers HSE training. "They just know that they have to be in compliance, but no one is explaining how and where to get this information."

Mr Hamam said contractors are paying the minimum amount to consultants to develop safety plans that pass only the basic requirements for the municipality.

"What they want is the cheapest quotation possible," he said. "They will buy a safety plan but never look at it or implement it."

Mr Zurub said the municipality will also work on improving its system for reporting violators to the courts in an effort to help companies understand the penalties.

The HSE annual report is under development and is expected to be completed early next year. The report will outline the number of accidents, fatalities and violators in 2011, and review training and workshops carried out this year.