x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Labourers still at risk after new work law

Workers toiling in the sun to be given an afternoon break for an extra four weeks, but will still face risks, caution health officials.

Labourers will get four more weeks of midday breaks this year.
Labourers will get four more weeks of midday breaks this year.

Abu Dhabi // As the midday break came into force today, health officials welcomed the decision to start it earlier this year, but cautioned that the men still face risks. The law governing the break, officially unveiled in Abu Dhabi yesterday, requires anyone working "in the sun and open spaces" to be given a break between 12.30 and 3pm from today until September 15. That is four more weeks than last year, when the break ran for the months of July and August.

A senior health official called the law an "excellent start", but warned that the measure still "needs teeth". Too many workers will still be exposed to scorching summer temperatures, even if they were working under rooftops, Dr Salim Adib, head of public health and safety at the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (HAAD). "It doesn't cover stuff that's in the shade, it doesn't cover temperature," he said.

Under the law, labourers must be given sheltered areas with circulated air to rest and rehydrate, or be taken by bus to spend the early afternoon at a suitable off-site rest area. But it still permits labourers to continue working in shaded areas such as unfinished buildings, even if the structure lacks windows or air conditioning. Abdulla al Bahhar, an inspector with the Ministry of Labour, said site inspectors would have the discretion to decide whether people working under a roof were at risk of heat-related illness, even if they were not exposed to direct sunshine.

"Indoors is no problem, but not all indoor worksites," he said. "It must be a good area. Sometimes you see a building is new, there's nothing there and it's open from all ways." In such a case, inspectors can order a break. "Inspectors, they would say if this building can have people stay inside [comfortably] while working, then no problem," he said. "But working in some buildings is almost like working outside."

Labourers will be allowed to continue with certain "technical works" such as the laying of asphalt and concrete, as well as emergency sewer and electricity works, through the break hours, if they "serve the general interest". However, the ministry stressed that this did not mean companies would be allowed to ignore the break to meet building deadlines. Muhsin Alnasee, the manager of the ministry's inspections department, said the decision to extend the break by two weeks at each end had been backed by the private sector.

"We thought, even June is a hot month," he said. "We discussed this with the construction companies. All companies respected this decree, so this helped us to make this decree three months." Last year, inspectors found labourers asleep in alleyways and laying under buses for shade. More than 460 companies signed up for last year's Safety in the Heat campaign by HAAD. This year, the authority is hoping to more than double that figure. It is aiming to hand out more than 78,000 leaflets and posters advising workers and employers on how to stay safe and hydrated.

The authority uses a "thermal work limit" scale, measuring air temperature, humidity, radiant heat and wind speed to determine whether conditions are safe for working in, regardless of whether the space is in direct sunlight or not. "Sunlight is only one aspect of four," said Darren Joubert, a senior officer in occupational health at HAAD. "The others are also very important." Last year 2,717 people were treated in casualty wards for heat-related illnesses. The number of deaths relating to heat is not known.

According to Dr Jens Thomsen, HAAD's head of occupational and environmental health, these were the "tip of the iceberg". "There are likely to be many more undocumented and unreported cases which aren't serious enough to go to hospital," he said. @Email:munderwood@thenational.ae mkwong@thenational.ae