The exact figures are not yet ready, but officials in Abu Dhabi are saying that the number of construction accidents reported to the municipality has increased this year over 2010. This could actually be good news, in the narrow sense that reporting may be more comprehensive than it used to be. But there is still plenty of room to do better.
The National reported yesterday that officials say the final total for 2011 workplace deaths will be below the 551 recorded in 2010, itself a sharp decline from the 680 recorded in 2009.
But these numbers are still shockingly high by world standards. For example the United Kingdom, with 62.7 million people, recorded only 489 deaths in all categories of employment in the 12 months ending last November 30. And of those, only 52 happened in construction work. Our building sites have a long way to go.
Fortunately, officials in Abu Dhabi are moving in the right direction. The rate of inspections is being increased, and a period of issuing mere warnings is now giving way to actual fines against employers who are not complying with established safety norms.
Over the medium or long term, however, reducing the rate of serious workplace mishaps is not only a matter of enforcement. Safety vigilance cannot take root in any high-risk industry until there is a culture change. Workers who feel pressured to be more productive may, for example, wear safety harnesses as required where there is a danger of falling, but may not want to take the moment needed to reattach them each time they move from one spot to another on a site.
Foremen and managers, then, need to be motivated to treat the expense of safety measures - equipment, procedures, work pace, reporting - as an essential cost of doing business. Officials have a role too, not only in enforcing the law but in making sure that builders can comply with the rules efficiently, without a burden of extra paperwork.
Even with optimum efficiency, however, buildings completed with zero accidents will usually have higher price-tags - in money - than those built with less regard for the workmen. This is a cost that we should all be prepared to bear and share. A mature and sophisticated society simply cannot accept hundreds of construction deaths a year.