ABU DHABI // Two and a half years ago, construction safety was primarily overseen by a three-member team at the municipality.
On-site inspections were rare, regulations were still under development and accidents were common. Requirements for construction site safety plans were not enforced, and few workers were educated about the risks of the job.
"We have come very far since then," said Abdulaziz Zurub, who established the health and safety division at the municipality in May 2010 and is now its director.
"We started with the question of how to fill the gaps. This is a long trip, so we are slowly, systematically working."
The city now has 18 officials performing daily inspections, and the department has partnered with the capital's 40 building permit engineers, who also perform regular audits on construction sites. More than 3,500 people attended safety workshops last year, and more than 1,000 companies have begun using the capital's Environment, Health and Safety Management System (EHSMS).
To get a building permit, companies must submit a safety plan for approval by the municipality. Violators face fines of up to Dh50,000 for a single infraction and the suspension of permits and licences on all sites.
Last year, the municipality introduced regulations that heavily fine companies if they fail to ensure that all their heavy machinery and cranes are certified by a third-party inspection company.
"People know we are serious now," Mr Zurub said. "Companies know that the government will fine them if they don't comply with safety rules. In 2005, we released a safety booklet, but we could not follow up. Now, we have seen a dramatic increase of on-the-ground work."
Construction companies need to work harder at ensuring safety, say experts. In 2011, the first year for which such statistics were kept, the municipality recorded 29 accidents at construction sites, 10 of them fatal.
This year, the number of violations reported has grown, with falls - or falling objects - accounting for half of all accidents.
And, despite efforts to warn employers about the dangers of working in the heat, more than 3,000 cases of heat-related illnesses were reported at healthcare facilities in the emirate in 2010, and most of the patients were labourers who worked outside.
Since June 15, when the midday break was implemented, there have been no violations.
Awareness campaigns - including the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi's "Height Aware" and the Ministry of Labour's midday break programme - have emphasised the importance of educating labourers on how to be safe at work. Several government agencies regularly hand out informational pamphlets and hold events for construction and demolition companies, engineers and consultants.
Darren Joubert, the health authority's senior officer for occupational and environmental health, said these awareness tactics work best when they are framed in terms to which the companies can relate.
"Good occupational health and safety is actually good for business and improves quality and outcomes, reduces injuries and costs and is very important to a business's performance," Mr Joubert said. "This idea and message needs to be conveyed to employers and business owners to increase efforts and address occupational health and safety as a savings, rather than a cost."
Smaller companies and smaller risks have become the primary focus for municipal inspectors, Mr Zurub said. Unsafe scaffolding, improperly used equipment and a lack of supervision are the most commonly reported problems on sites where a culture of safety is still new.
"Unfortunately, we still have fatalities and injuries, but there is definitely improvement," he said. "I hope in the near future, we will hear about changes. We want that number to be zero."
Enforcement of current laws is also crucial to continued improvement.
"It is a big challenge, for sure," Mr Joubert said. "It is not only about having laws and regulations; it is changing how people think about safety issues. That culture is a relatively new idea here."
About 60 per cent of the 1,000 companies that have signed up to use the EHSMS system, an emirate-wide initiative that requires all industries to minimise pollution and waste and create safer workplaces, are using municipally approved plans. The other 40 per cent have submitted plans but are awaiting approval.
"We are just getting started," Mr Zurub said. "We have much more work to do."