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Building a better culture of safety

The progress made in construction-site safety is a source of national pride, and is a good example of how the UAE is building governance capacity.

Construction has been one of the UAE's most important and lucrative industries over the past four decades. Historically, however, it also has had a very poor safety record. Now, the days of companies getting away with safety violations are coming to an end.

As The National reported yesterday, Abu Dhabi Municipality is hiring more construction-site inspectors. Just three years ago, a three-member team was responsible for policing building sites across the capital; today, that number has risen to 18 officials carrying out frequent inspections. Their work is complemented by 40 building-permit engineers, who also perform regular audits of construction sites.

This capacity building is welcome, and overdue. While improving worker safety is a moral and pragmatic imperative, safety legislation has existed for a long time. In most cases, it was companies' lack of compliance - and a lack of enforcement - that led to avoidable accidents.

From ensuring that safety harnesses, hard hats and protective masks are used, to providing medical aid and observing the midday break, employers have an obligation to every person on their work sites.

That, of course, does not relieve individuals of their own personal responsibility to look after their own skins.

Increasing the number of government inspections, and fines for safety violations, should have a direct effect in the short term. In the longer term, the nation needs a stronger culture of safety, and not just in the construction industry but across society.

Fire safety, seat-belts and general rules of the road, child safety in and outside the home - how many foolish oversights lead to completely avoidable accidents almost every week? Time and again, people just ignore basic common sense, and very often public-safety laws.

The construction industry, long the target of criticism regarding safety and working conditions, is taking real steps to set an example. In 2011, over 3,500 people attended safety workshops, and more than 1,000 construction companies are now using Abu Dhabi's Environment, Health and Safety Management System. The concrete results remain to be seen, but the effort is genuine.

The Municipality has shouldered more responsibility on these issues. Construction companies, and ultimately individuals, must do the same.

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