The pandemic put a halt to much construction activity and major events around the world, and the Middle East region was no different. However, advances in powered access have pressed ahead, which means as work to catch-up on construction pipeline intensifies, safety will not be sacrificed for speed or efficiency.

Construction, infrastructure and maintenance contractors and project managers in the Middle East have long embraced powered access equipment as one of the safest ways to conduct temporary work at height. As activity ramps up and the impacts of the pandemic subside, it is vital that those planning, managing and regulating work at height using powered access do not cut corners and are aware of the increased pressures involved.

The virus itself still poses an additional challenge, but properly managed it poses no more risk than any other involved in temporary work at height. There are even crucial lessons we have learned during the pandemic that will allow people to work smartly and safely in future, part of the “new normal” way of doing things that will benefit us all.

For instance, there is now greater understanding of bio-secure work sites, use of technology to track machine and operator movements, new ways to train safely using eLearning, remote instructor-led sessions and even virtual reality simulators, and new guidance and digital solutions to help people plan, design, operate and supervise safe work at height using mobile elevating work platforms (MEWPs) and mast-climbing work platforms (MCWPs).

Market recovery amid pipeline catch-up

In the Middle East there is a significant and diverse powered access market. MEWPs and MCWPs are extensively used in many industries including aviation, construction, facilities management, oil and gas.

The market was estimated to be growing in terms of fleet size and rental revenue at 5-8% before the coronavirus pandemic struck. Many companies in the Middle East and South Asia report utilisation rates of around 80 to 85% in the high season, and typically MEWPs tend to go out on hire for longer periods than in other countries – major projects can last for up to five years.

“the Middle East has long embraced powered access equipment as one of the safest ways to conduct temporary work at height”

Covid-19 almost stalled the whole industry, thankfully rental companies are starting to recover. Utilisation rates in the Middle East are still around 60%, which is down on the usual. Many rental companies have put extra safety precautions in place, and clients are hiring more machines to allow for less intensive usage by single operators, or to allow social distancing by keeping a single occupant per platform. The market is slowly recovering, construction sites are up and running and borders are starting to reopen as the vaccinations roll out.

As a result of the pandemic, many rental companies are going through a re-budget and targets are being revised. This is likely to continue throughout the next six months to monitor and respond to market demand.

In the past five years we have seen a steady climb in demand for MEWPs in the Middle East; the market is maturing thanks to continued steady growth, but it may take some time for significant fleet increase, meaning utilisation rates will likely remain above those typical in Europe or the US.

Demand for quality training establishes a foothold  

Quality Training in the Middle East is well-established now and is starting to get back on track post-pandemic. UAE has taken the lead with KSA following hot on its heels in terms of demand.

Laws and standards that are broadly in line with those in Europe or the US are being adopted in the Middle East. Helping these standards become properly implemented takes time, with a lot of work and research to assist and influence local and regional governing bodies.

Safety is being influenced as there are many MEWPs/MCWPs being used in countries that are moving away from traditional standard way of working at height, with users reaching out for safer systems of work. The risk from Covid-19 is being addressed and managed, particularly through an accelerated vaccination drive, and the focus is starting to shift to how businesses can run safely and efficiently in the post-pandemic environment.

For the UAE, a huge commitment to quality training in the region came towards the end of 2019, as the Dubai Municipal Authority mandated all powered access operators must hold a valid IPAF PAL Card, with the requirement for training renewal every two years as opposed to the five-year standard applicable in other countries. The initiative was prepared by the Dubai Municipality occupational safety department with the goal of reducing the risk of accidents.

Get the right tools for the job  

Training using eLearning saw a fivefold increase in demand across the peak of the pandemic, and this demand shows no signs of subsiding back to pre-pandemic levels, so it is clear that training candidates and their employers like the additional flexibility offered.

Based on ongoing analysis of accident and near-miss incidents, analysis has found that underlying causes can be traced back to poor planning, inadequate risk assessment, and incomplete understanding of the technical and safety demands of the task, or attempting the job using an incorrect machine or untrained operators and supervisors.

Selecting a MEWP can be complex and challenging, even for experienced site managers. Being confident and sufficiently knowledgeable to select the correct MEWP for the job directly reduces risk. Correct MEWP selection also improves effectiveness of MEWP operations, reducing unnecessary costs and increasing ability to meet intended timescales.

Virtual workshops offer inspection support  

As well as training online, virtual workshops can be used to assist and support those who carry out third-party inspections of MEWPs and MCWPs to meet growing demand across the whole region.

Virtual workshops may feature different equipment manufacturers each month, presenting important points to consider when carrying out six-monthly or annual inspections on MEWP or MCWP equipment. The sessions are designed to assist engineers and inspectors, enhancing awareness of general principles, and increasing specific product knowledge for all those who join the sessions.

The virtual workshops deliver general tips and pointers to consider when carrying out a MEWP inspection, as well as specific product information relating to key machine types, and so far well over 1,000 participants have joined one or more of these workshops. Equipment manufacturers, national and regional governing bodies and organisations all share the same goal of teaching others to be more effective when carrying out vital inspection tasks.

Vital lessons drawn from past mistakes  

Another significant development concerns accident reporting. If reporting portals are available in multiple languages this will allow users to input data about accidents and near-misses, which helps to create anonymised databases that can be used to inform training programmes and safety and technical guidance.

Guidance to minimise virus risk  

Out of necessity, the industry we work in is becoming more responsive, adopting new technologies and finding opportunities in the challenges we face, including the pandemic. It is perfectly possible to work safely, smartly and effectively using trained operators and supervisors of MEWP and MCWP equipment, and to adopt new protocols and ways of working that keep everyone safe and indeed are an upgrade on the way things have been done previously.

One final example of this would be the guidance issued at the height of the pandemic in 2020. The new document has been developed and reviewed by IPAF’s safety experts and members with specialist knowledge of health and safety best practice. It is centred on a hierarchy of risk, with guidance on how to mitigate possible exposure to the virus to help protect employees, colleagues, customers and users of powered access equipment. At all times the latest government advice should be adhered to.

The hierarchy is ranked from eliminating risk entirely, through reducing risk, isolating users from risk and controlling risk to protecting against risk through use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Peter Douglas, IPAF’s CEO and MD, says: “Ours is an industry founded on the principles of safe working and adopting best practice through sound risk assessment and mitigation. Where there’s an increased risk posed by the spread of coronavirus, we must do everything we can to eliminate, reduce, control or protect against it.

“Powered access equipment is key to conducting work at height safely, the services our members provide are of vital importance on construction sites, maintenance and infrastructure projects around the world. If powered access firms can’t do this work, projects will be hampered and safety while working at height could be compromised.

“it is important not to use the virus as an excuse to cut corners on established principles of work at height safety”

“As Governments and economies ease restrictions, we appreciate it will not just be back to ‘business as usual’ so we issued what we feel is a comprehensive set of guidelines for operating safely in light of this specific risk, with advice about how to identify risk, maintain social distancing and workplace hygiene, and use of additional PPE.”

On construction sites, enhanced risk assessment, cleansing of machines, use of additional PPE such as face masks and visors, and using extra machines to allow a ‘one operator per platform’ rule to maintain social distancing are all recommended. If contractors need to hire additional machines, it’s important to only ask trained and familiarised operators to use the equipment and for work to be adequately supervised.

It is important not to use the virus as an excuse to cut corners on established principles of work at height safety. It is vital that employees are protected from risks associated with working at height at the same time as being mindful of the additional risk posed by coronavirus.

“with proper planning, robust risk assessment and common-sense measures, safety issues can be managed”

Never ask someone who isn’t properly trained to use a MEWP, MCWP, lift or hoist, and always ensure you have the right machine for the job. These basic principles haven’t changed. As an industry, powered access is all about safety, so while the challenge facing us should not be underestimated, with proper planning, robust risk assessment and common-sense measures to minimise the chance of spreading the virus and protect all employees, this issue can be managed.