x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Crane accident was an avoidable danger

The collapse of a crane on a busy street in Abu Dhabi posed an unacceptable public danger. Stricter inspections could help prevent similar accidents.

Tuesday's crane accident at a construction site near the corner of Salam and Hamdan streets in the capital raises some hard questions. Construction cranes at the street's edge are no rarity in this country; who among us has never eyed one warily while passing by?

This one toppled into the roadway. Nobody was killed or even injured, but next time we may not be so lucky. The challenge therefore becomes avoiding that next time.

The National reported yesterday that about 800 of Abu Dhabi's 2,000 or so construction companies have signed on to a new programme intended to improve workplace safety. That seems like timely progress towards worker, and public, safety.

But a closer look at the Environment, Health and Safety Management System reveals that it is essentially more paperwork for companies that already meet standards set by the International Organisation for Standardisation. Central to the underlying policy is the idea that industries and firms covered will provide a high degree of self-regulation.

Experience in other countries has shown that self-regulation can work well for the biggest companies, which put both prestige and legal liability on the line with each project that bears their brand name.

But there is never an adequate substitute for inspectors getting their hands dirty checking worksites in person. Yet there are only 20 inspectors for the whole Abu Dhabi construction sector. Sure enough, on-site inspection yesterday at Tuesday's accident site found more safety risks, and the site was shut down. The authorities did well to follow up, but we hope the next accident is averted by inspections before the event.

Officials say, meanwhile, that new regulations for lifting equipment are being developed. But even perfect regulation is useless without robust inspection and relentless enforcement. Worse than useless, because it increases the paperwork burden and can cause overconfidence.

There is evidently a bureaucratic tendency to assume that making a rule solves a problem. But human beings are not as orderly as functionaries' spreadsheets; you've got to make sure the rules are being followed if you expect them to be any good.

Only robust inspection, and attention-getting fines for violations, can make even the best regulations useful.