x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Authorities turn up the heat on bosses

A compulsory midday break for labourers comes into force today, coinciding with an ongoing campaign to monitor and protect the health of construction workers.

The contruction site of the future Central Souq in Abu Dhabi.
The contruction site of the future Central Souq in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // A compulsory midday break for labourers comes into force today, coinciding with an ongoing campaign to monitor and protect the health of construction workers. The regulation, which applies until the end of August, requires employers nationwide to grant building workers a break from 12.30pm to 3.30pm.

Along with the enforced rest, authorities have introduced several health-related initiatives to protect workers from dehydration during the sweltering summer months. The Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD) and the Ministry of Labour jointly launched a campaign called "Summer in the Heat" in May, giving companies more than a month to introduce their staff to educational material prepared after two years of research by international experts on construction sites in the Emirate.

The researchers examined a number of factors that affect workers, monitoring their hydration, heart rate and temperature three times a day for 12 days. One site where the material is being used is at the corner of Hamdan Street and Airport Road, one of the largest building sites in the capital. The Central Market, being built by Aldar, will house a traditional souq, a five-star hotel, and residential and office towers.

One of the main contractors on the site, the Arabian Contracting Company, which employs 3,000 workers, has been steadily conducting training workshops, including screening videos for the executives and construction workers. Geoff Bottomley, the health, safety and environment manager for ACC at the site, said: "It is a pyramid. It starts with management and engineers. Then supervisors, foremen and workers." This was also a strategy that could be developed for enforcement of the hydration rules.

For the past month, Santosh Kurup, a senior safety engineer with ACC, has been responsible for showing the videos to the labour force and for answering their questions. He said a number of workers had not previously been aware of basic safeguards, such as how to keep hydrated and what kinds of food were detrimental to health, including greasy meals at night and cups of tea or coffee, which are diuretics.

"Now they are aware of many things," he said, including not to drink carbonated soft drinks when thirsty, but "just to take lots of water and add some salt to their food to replenish the salts that are lost due to sweating". Mr Kurup added that workers also knew now that they should report to their supervisors if they have heat stress-related symptoms such as headache, dizziness or exhaustion. Illustrated posters on the theme of hydration have also gone up in labour camps. One has diagrams showing how to judge dehydration from the colour of urine.

"I saw posters in the bathrooms at the camp," said Mohammed Sahib, a construction worker from Pakistan. "From the different samples the poster showed, I knew how to tell whether I should be drinking more water." After a training workshop on Monday, Mohammed Gilani, from India, said he finally understood why it was important to stay hydrated. "I know now that I should drink at least a litre of water before I even come to work. And throughout the day, I should drink at least two to three litres of water every two hours. And that I should rest if I am not feeling well in order to avoid heat-related illnesses."

Companies registering for the programme receive an insulated cooler along with free awareness materials such as posters, workers' pamphlets and videos recorded in five languages - Arabic, English, Urdu, Hindi and Malayalam - among other materials from HAAD. After the research showed that labourers were arriving at work already dehydrated from their choice of food and drink the night before, Mr Bottomley decided to put water bottles in the buses bringing them from the camps.

He has also found other ways to make sure his staff stay hydrated. He employs "water boys" who have the job of filling large, insulated coolers which cranes lift to the upper levels of buildings, which can be as high as 88 floors and where workers may have no ready access to liquids. "Every third batch of water contains electrolytes so they are getting their rehydration salts as well," said Mr Bottomley, who has also borrowed a heat stress meter from HAAD to keep track of the temperature, humidity and other heat-related factors on the site, both in the sun and shade.

Next to the on-site clinic is a "cooling room" or rest area for workers suffering from heat stress or who "simply need to take a break". So far, 271 companies with more than 600,000 workers between them have registered with HAAD, including 38 companies from Dubai, the northern emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman. There have also been registrations from the US, South Africa, India, Italy, Spain and Australia, according to Darren Joubert, a senior adviser for occupational health with the HAAD.

"I have had inquiries from the Ministry of Health in Qatar as well about the programme and they are interested in promoting it too," he said. However, the challenge is to involve small firms, he said. Only 11 small companies, with fewer than 50 workers each, had registered. "The response from large companies has been very positive," he said. "However, we would like to encourage smaller companies."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae