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Falls are a common cause of injury at construction sites, experts say, and better training and on-site care could help improve worker safety.
Jaime Puebla
Falls are a common cause of injury at construction sites, experts say, and better training and on-site care could help improve worker safety.

Research highlights danger to labourers

A study shows that two-thirds of all injury admissions at Al Ain Hospital in 2008 were labourers.

A study by UAE University shows that two-thirds of all occupational injury admissions at Al Ain Hospital in 2008 were due to falls or falling objects. Dr Peter Barss, the principal author of the 26-month study, said the findings were especially troubling given that proper safety measures could have diminished the risks. "Theoretically, normal standard precautions such as safety barriers, ensuring buildings don't have open floors, regular inspections of how scaffolding is used and set up could have prevented these types of injuries," Dr Barss said in a phone interview from Canada, where he works as a consultant on injury research. "You could repeat all those safety warnings forever," he said. "But what would make the difference is well-enforced regulations and passive or automatic protection like safety barriers and helmets to keep falling objects from bashing off heads."

More than half of the 614 recorded injury cases involved falls, and another 15 per cent were caused by falling objects, the study showed. Its findings echo those of BuildSafe UAE, a body of 388 construction companies that record accident data, and could give ammunition to those seeking a national trauma registry. Such a registry could help establish if the Al Ain data is reflective of a nation-wide situation. The Al Ain trauma registry was established in 2003 at Al Ain Hospital, which treated more than 80 per cent of severe trauma cases between March 2003 and April 2005 in the emirate's second-largest city. The report states: "Considering that so many workers are in hazardous occupations, surprisingly little has been published on epidemiology and prevention of occupational injuries."

Non-nationals accounted for 96 per cent of the occupational injury hospitalisations, with young males making up 98 per cent of patients. Most - 69 per cent - were between 24 and 44 years old. "If foreigners are going to work in the UAE to develop the country, they shouldn't be going home in a body bag or disabled," said Dr Barss, who worked at UAE University for seven years. "There needs to be protection of those vulnerable workers who are coming from very poor countries with families dependent on them, so if they're maimed, there's unimaginable suffering for the people back home." Given the fast pace of development in the region and the predominance of vulnerable workers from low-income countries, the report says "prevention of occupation injury is an urgent imperative".

Allan Shanks, the head of health and safety on Aldar's Al Raha Beach project, was not surprised by the statistics. He said that to avoid a similar situation, Aldar routinely drills its workers on safety practices. "We have a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week emergency on-site hotline always available to our employees," he said. "All the workers wear the number on stickers on their helmets." When there is an accident, a rescue team responds and transports the injured worker to a nearby central clinic equipped with X-ray machines. "Within five or 10 minutes, once we've stabilised the casualty, the doctor is called into action and the casualty is transported onwards to the hospital if needed," Mr Shanks said.

Other construction supervisors say they regularly monitor how safe the working environment is. Dr Fikri Abu-Zidan, a co-author of the study and professor of medicine at UAE University, stressed the need to establish more trauma registries to identify workplace accident trends and eliminate the root causes. "We want a national trauma registry," he said. "Information makes a difference. Every trauma case by the hospital should be registered in the registry so we know what's happening - what's the size of the problem?" Recently, Al Rahba and Tawam hospitals appointed doctors to manage trauma registries full-time. But obtaining national funds to keep the programme running is a challenge, he said.

"If you're talking about potential life loss, 60 per cent of these deaths are young people in the community from trauma," he said. According to the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, injuries were the single most common cause of death in the emirate in 2007, accounting for 23 per cent of fatalities. Data on hospital admissions may also reveal shortcomings in treatment, experts say. For instance, the predominant mode of transport to hospitals, according to the UAE University researchers, was private car (85 per cent). Only 12 per cent of injured workers were taken by ambulance. Dr Hani Eid, who works on the Tawam Hospital trauma registry and contributed to the UAE University report, said this was likely because emergency services were still developing. Ambulance services can be overwhelmed simply attending to road collisions, he said.

"So we found sometimes the foreman or the engineer of the site was just picking up his employee and taking him to the hospital," Dr Eid said. "The problem is, they cannot recognise severe injuries." Construction firms, he added, have also been afraid to alert police immediately when accidents occur. "It's obligatory by the Ministry of Labour to wear safety shoes and helmets, but maybe [the workers] were not wearing those things at the time," Dr Eid said. Meanwhile, BuildSafe UAE said that of the 690 accidents they recorded nationwide last year, there were 81 falls and another 57 injuries caused by falling objects. Of the 20 fatalities recorded by the companies last year, the highest number of deaths were caused by falls. Its figures are self-reported by member companies and accidents do not necessarily involve hospitalisation.

"It is a major problem, and we have tried our best to relay this to as many as possible," said Elias McGrath, group administrator of BuildSafe UAE. "But there has been a very, very weak response." Mr McGrath added that although there were regulations to safeguard workers, contractors and companies needed to comply for them to be effective. That will not happen without better enforcement, he added. "We can blame it on too many construction projects, but that is not fair because too many people are getting away with it, and causing accidents, some of which result in deaths," Mr McGrath said. To raise awareness, training and incentives were needed, he said. "Over here, such things are totally neglected," he said. "People are exposed to the risk."

Taking the proper precautions can help avoid expenses, including legal fees and fines for unsafe practices, he said. Mr McGrath outlined some of the measures a construction company could embrace to promote safety, including training workers how to handle themselves high above the ground. And any employee suffering from health problems should not be allowed up at all, he said. "Anything that affects one's ability to work at heights not only puts them at risk but also their colleagues and the general public," he said. The building in Deira that collapsed in August demonstrated the danger of falling debris, he added. Even a small piece "can hit a car or a pedestrian and cause great damage", he said.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae mkwong@thenational.ae

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