It was still only the first week in July when Stephen Van Wyngaard began to realise that he might have the beginnings of a serious problem.
On the site of Louvre Abu Dhabi, workers were starting to report sick in increasing numbers with symptoms of heat-stress.
In themselves, the cases were not particularly serious – no one had collapsed – but the number of workers reporting to the on-site first-aid clinic on a typical day suffering from the heat soon rose from five to ten.
By the end of the month, up to 13 cases a day were arriving for treatment.
As the health and safety manager for the museum project, Mr Van Wyngaard thought he had taken every precaution for the welfare of the men under his care.
Workers were already observing a summer midday break that was longer than the statutory minimum, and the site had a plentiful supply of water and cool areas. The importance of recognising the first symptoms of heat stoke had been drummed in to workers during induction training.
Yet still they were feeling the heat.
“It was beyond what I had ever seen in my life,” says Mr Van Wyngaard. The team of safety officers that is permanently on site during working hours was at full stretch, as were the two trained nurses in the health clinic.
But within days he had diagnosed the problem and found a solution.
The Louvre’s proximity to the sea was pushing humidity levels to highs many of the workers had never before encountered.
The answer was to change the working day. The midday break was extended by several hours and the workforce would work two shifts, one ending at 10am and the other not starting until 4pm.
By the end of the first week of the new shifts, only two cases of heat stress had been reported.
Even as July turned to August and the daytime temperatures reached furnace levels, the number of workers suffering from the heat dwindled to almost zero.
Maintaining the highest standards of safety and welfare will always be a priority on such a big project, the first of the city’s three museums on Saadiyat Island’s Culture District.
In the coming weeks, the number of workers on the site will reach its peak – around 5,000 – with the risks of accident and injury ever-present.
So far, the construction team picked by the Tourism Development and Investment Company has achieved an enviable level of safety. As of last week, nearly 3.4 million working hours had passed with out an accident – defined as an injury serious enough for a worker to miss the next shift.
But even with the most rigorous precautions and the most thorough training, accidents happen.
During this first stage of construction of the museum, the workers are in an environment of concrete and steel, surrounded by heavy machinery. It is a world of sharp edges and heavy loads. Cuts and bruises, even broken bones come with the territory. Many of these would not seem serious, even in an office environment.
In a typical scene at the site clinic last week, a worker extends a finger with a nasty scrape to be cleaned with hydrogen peroxide. Mark Flores, a nurse from the Philippines, disinfects the wound then deftly winds a large bandage around the injured digit.
His colleague, Afzal Nazar, from Kerala, helped, as he often does, with the translation, explaining that the man had injured himself moving steel pipes. He would be fit to return to work but required to return to the clinic for daily check-ups to make sure the wound was healing.
The clinic, a small single-story temporary structure on the edge of the site, is the front line for a variety of ailments and injuries.
Mr Van Wyngaard, a South African, whose full title is Health and Safety Manager for the TDIC Saadiyat Management Office, explains that workers who walk through the door are first divided into two categories; occupational and non-occupational injuries.
The distinction is important: the former are injuries picked up on the site, the latter are the sort of aches and pains that might keep most of us from work in the first place.
The workers, though, don’t always make these distinctions and if they are feeling under the weather, the first call is often the site clinic.
Mr Van Wyngaard explains that while the clinic isn’t designed to deal with such non-occupational cases, which are packed off to a regular doctor’s surgery for treatment, the nurses still give them an initial once-over.
“They bring us their problems and we attend to these regardless,” he says. “These are human beings. They are our workers.”
Since the final phase of construction began in January, the clinic has treated 387 people for a variety of workplace injuries. Most of these are minor and can be dealt with on site, with the trained medical staff on duty for as long as work is being done.
Anyone who needs more specialist attention is sent on to a hospital. The clinic’s three nurses – one works the night shift – are only allowed carry out certain tasks under Abu Dhabi’s health rules. So if a patient needs an x-ray or a tetanus injection, or has a cut that needs stitching, they are referred elsewhere.
The closest medical centre is the Lifeline Hospital on Electra Street, but each of the companies and subcontractors involved in the Louvre project has its own medical insurance which could involve a trip to a different hospital further away.
For more serious cases, though, the priority would be to get the injured man treated as quickly as possible. On site, the clinic operates a 24-hour emergency-response vehicle, a white Toyota van equipped with first-aid packs, stretchers, a rigid spinal board and oxygen.
The vehicle is authorised to operate only on the Saadiyat site; if transportation to hospital is needed, then a regular ambulance is called. So far the system has worked well, as the site’s safety record shows.
“I am proud of that,” Mr Van Wyngaard says. “It is not an easy job.”
Nor will it get any easier. The new year will bring a new phase of construction as work starts on the 180-metre dome that will cover the most of the museum, which is due to open in 2015
Building the dome will mean men working from scaffolding high above the ground. While all workers are required to wear a safety harness, this brings its own special set of challenges.
The pressure from the straps means anyone left hanging from a harness for even a relatively short length of time can suffer potentially fatal circulation problems. So a rescue team has trained to get them down to the ground within a maximum of eight minutes.
On the plus side, the construction of the museum’s galleries, which is due to begin later this year, means that for the first time the team of site safety officers, who can also administer first aid, will soon be able to work under cover for the first time.
“We just deal with whatever comes our way” says Mr Van Wyngaard. “We are ready to rock”