Cutting building site deaths a high priority for Abu Dhabi

An average of 72 people who work at height, mostly on construction sites, have been killed in falls each year since 2007.

Hot weather, which can leave workers dehydrated and sometimes delirious, can lead to accidents.
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ABU DHABI // More needs to be done to reduce the number of people killed in falls on Abu Dhabi building sites, health and safety experts say.

Since 2007 there has been an average of 72 deaths a year by people who work at height in the emirate.

Last year there were 71 deaths on sites. Falls and people being struck by falling objects accounted for 75 per cent of the total.

Now safety experts have backed a campaign to highlight the risks associated with working at height and improve safety standards.

Height Aware will hopefully put an end to the steady number of fatalities, said Dr Jens Thomsen, the section head of occupational and environmental health at the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad).

The initiative is supported by the Ministry of Labour and the Environment, Health and Safety Centre.

"If you look at occupational injuries [in 2011] they are the second-leading cause of fatal injuries in Abu Dhabi [out of a total of 537]," Dr Thomsen said.

"The trend that you can see since 2007 is that every year there are between 60 and 80 fatal occupational injuries. "That trend is not really going down so we still need to do a lot more in terms of preventing these types of injuries."

Hot weather, which can leave workers dehydrated and sometimes delirious, can lead to accidents.

But the Ministry of Labour this week said it would not bring forward obligatory lunchtime breaks for workers, which begin on June 15.

The capital has been increasing efforts in other ways, with more than half of all licensed construction companies having registered to introduce Environment, Health and Safety Management System guidelines by last July.

The guidelines, which companies have two years to fully implement, include adequate training of staff and designing an emergency plan.

In April last year, the Department of Municipal Affairs also warned that companies ran the risk of being refused building permits if they were found not to have trained their staff to an adequate level.

But several recent deaths show more needs to be done.

Last January, five workers were injured and one killed after the scaffolding they were on collapsed.

Violations uncovered by a municipality investigation into the accident included the use of substandard equipment, lack of regular inspections and lack of proper supervision.

As Abu Dhabi grows the number of people working at height rises, increasing the chance of injury, said Dr Omniyat Al Hajri, Haad's director of public health and policy.

"With the construction industry … growing swiftly, working at height has become a common requirement for many jobs," Dr Al Hajri said.

The safety programme will also highlight occupational injuries that occur in other sectors, she said.

"This risk is also present in agriculture, like date farming, the oil and gas industry and window-cleaning," Dr Al Hajri said.

The programme is not mandatory, but any company with staff who work at height should join in, said Darren Joubert, a senior officer in Haad's occupational and public health and policy department.

Lack of proper health and safety at building sites is evident, said Mr Joubert. He referred to a recent example of a man who worked while balancing on a plank of wood, high above the ground.

"It's happening quite a lot and it's a very common occurrence," Mr Joubert said. "It just takes one step, one misstep, and that's the end."

Other examples include workers using equipment such as ladders improperly by placing buckets on the top step to increase the height.

"The worker may use ladders inappropriately or use ladders which need to be replaced, with a mistaken belief that they need not to make a fuss and report issues," said Jonathan Pickering, the Middle East chairman of IOSH, the world's biggest professional health and safety membership organisation.

Height Aware will include the distribution of instruction booklets to companies and staff explaining the basics of health and safety.

The manuals, to be published in a range of languages, also have pictures to help illiterate workers.

If the programme were a success, it would pave the way for the rest of the country and other Middle East nations to follow, said Mr Pickering.