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Building industry pinpoints hazards in effort to save lives

The Health Authority-Abu Dhabi has released figures that showe 108 labourers died while at work last year.

ABU DHABI // Poorly constructed trenches, falling objects and a lack of "exclusion zones" remain common hazards on building sites, a construction industry report said yesterday. The report, part of a drive to increase safety on sites by making companies more aware of potential dangers and how they can be fixed, was drawn up by BuildSafe UAE, a consortium of 388 construction companies and regulatory bodies that record accident data.

It was released to coincide with International Workers' Memorial Day, an event organised to highlight the dangers faced by construction workers worldwide. Also marking the event, the capital released detailed figures on the number of deaths on construction sites last year. The Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD) figures showed that, in 2009, 108 labourers died while at work. Twenty-eight people died after falling, while 20 were hit by falling objects. Work-related road traffic accidents killed 27 people, and 13 were electrocuted.

Seven people were killed in accidents involving machinery, and four by drowning or submersion. Three were killed by fire or hot substances, and another three suffocated. The BuildSafe report detailed some of the causes of accidents, including the collapse of trenches that bury workers alive, falling objects, and the need to create "exclusion zones" - areas from which workers are excluded because of hazards from above.

It also called for companies to do more to alert workers to the risks of working with asbestos. Abdulla al Marzooqi, the health, safety and environment manager at Abu Dhabi Company for Onshore Oil Operations, said another key problem was a lack of supervision on some sites. A single supervisor would often oversee "who knows how many sites", he said. "If he is not under your supervision then you cannot supervise it," he said.

People working at heights should have specific medical checks as some people could be phobic, said Mr al Marzooqi. Dr Jens Thomsen, HAAD's head of occupational and environmental health, said it was hoped that the release of the figures would help make "the community at large" aware of the extent of the problem. The number of work-related deaths in Abu Dhabi has stayed relatively stable in recent years. In 2007 there were 100 deaths, which dropped to 76 the following year.

However, Dr Thomsen said, if construction companies had "appropriate and effective systems" to manage occupational health and safety risks, most, if not all, the deaths could be prevented. "It is the responsibility and duty of the employers," he said. "These employers and managers of companies are also responsible. It's not only the worker himself to be blamed. Everyone has a role to play." The Ministry of Labour said last week that a federal plan would be drawn up setting minimum standards for the construction industry, to reduce the numbers of injuries and deaths.

Among the main elements to be included in the plan are ways to document work accidents and injuries, many of which go unreported. The new laws will take six to nine months to draft, after which they will be reviewed and pending an approval by the Cabinet. Then, the focus will shift to enforcement and implementation, according to Elias McGrath, the group administrator of BuildSafe UAE. The health authority plans to launch an emirate-wide publicity campaign about the hazards of heights on building sites.

Zaid al Siksek, the chief executive of HAAD, said site safety was an important issue because "all workers deserve the right to be safe at work". Working with the Ministry of Labour, HAAD has prepared a document for all employers in the industry, which outlines their responsibilities in terms of the labour law. It offers guidance on how to identify hazards and formulate plans to prevent them accidents.

It includes details on how to erect and use scaffolding and ladders, as well as how to work safely on roofs. munderwood@thenational.ae sbhattacharya@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Matthew Chung

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