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The Middle East has faced considerable economic pressure over the past four years, mainly due to a steep fall in oil prices since 2014 and the relative strength of the US dollar.
This has had a significant and prolonged impact on the construction markets in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as several nations have reduced their public expenditure through cuts to spending programmes and subsidies.
Whereas occupational safety and health (OSH) statistics for Middle East countries are largely unknown, according to an ILO survey1 published in 2014, economic costs of work-related injury and illness vary between 1.8 and 6% of a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), averaging at 4%. The GDP of the United Arab Emirates alone was worth $382.58bn in 2017, therefore a loss of 4% would equate to $15bn.
Construction and associated manufacturing organisations will therefore have to think smart to remain profitable and competitive in this commercial environment; good safety management is one of ways that this can be achieved.
The United States Department of Labor’s OSHA’s $afety Pays Programme2 highlights the costs to an organisation based on Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory3 of direct and indirect costs. Direct costs are insured costs and indirect costs are uninsured costs.
So, what does that mean in practice?
Using this tool, the costs of a single fracture are as follows:
Direct (insured) costs include:
Indirect (uninsured) costs include:
It is also usual for insurance companies not to pay for all direct costs when organisations cannot prove that they have appropriate health and safety controls in place. Therefore, the less safety management that an organisation can demonstrate, the more direct costs they are likely to pay.
An effective OSH management system can significantly reduce the risk of accidents and incidents occurring, which in turn assists in reducing unintentional costs and improving profitability, as well as improving worker conditions and welfare.
Risk assessment is a fundamental part of an OSH management system and forms the basis of how an organisation protects its workers from harm. They can be simple or complex, depending on how safety-critical the activities are. The basic process of risk assessment involves:
Once risks to workers have been identified, appropriate control measures need to be put into place. The hierarchy of control is a method of prioritising controls to reduce risk, from most effective to least. There are different ways of expressing this system, but the hierarchy of control used in ISO 45001: 2018 Occupational health and safety management systems – Requirements4 is well accepted, being separated into five steps.
Eliminate the risk
This approach requires organisations to avoid the risk altogether. This may involve redesigning or changing the process or way of working to remove hazards. For example, eliminating the risk of using a hazardous substance could involve using a process that does not use it in the first place.
Substitute the risk
Eliminating the risk may not always be possible. In such cases, organisations should go for the next level of control: substitution. This involves using a process, substance or piece of work equipment that is less hazardous than the original. An example would be substituting a very noisy machine for a less noisy one.
The next level of safety is engineering controls. This step focuses on applying collective protective measures to isolate workers from the risk. This includes designing the process so that a hazardous material or process is locked in and uses gas detection systems, shutdown systems and ventilation systems to control exposure to a hazardous substance. Work equipment guarding can be used to reduce exposure to moving parts, noise and falls from height.
All the last steps would control the risk to an extent or eliminate it. If the risk remains, administrative controls may be applied. This involves providing information, instruction, training, or supervision for the risks involved. A documented procedure or workinstruction comes under administrative control. Restricted access to only trained professionals to work with potentially dangerous machinery is an example of an administrative control.
Personal protective equipment (PPE)
If the risk persists, PPE should be used to ensure protection from of any remaining hazards.
Using this hierarchy of control, organisations can ensure adequate controls are planned for any OSH-related risks and ensure the health and safety of their workers.
When all other measures have been considered and risks are still present, employers must consider using PPE.
It is well known, of course, that PPE and RPE are at the bottom of the hierarchy of controls. However, there are circumstances when they are needed – when other controls cannot be introduced or if they do not fully eradicate or control the risk.
The Middle East construction sector is a good example of where PPE is required where other controls cannot be introduced or cannot be reduced to an acceptable level. Environmental and operational hazards, for instance, can include:
All forms of PPE, including RPE, can play a significant part in mitigating the above risks, but what are the restrictions of using protection over higher level controls?
Firstly, and most importantly, they only protect the wearer. As a result, other workers not directly involved with an activity could be inadvertently be exposed to the hazard.
Secondly, PPE and RPE only provide protection if worn at all times when risk may be present and only then if always worn properly. This not only means that your workers need to be adequately trained in using the equipment, but also that your company’s safety culture is sufficiently advanced that workers comply with PPE and RPE requirements.
Thirdly, PPE and RPE may be costlier than using higher tier levels of control. If you have a large workforce, changing a work activity or replacing a hazardous piece of work equipment may be much more cost effective than issuing all your workers with suitable PPE to mitigate the effects of the hazard.
Certain cultures and religions prescribe or encourage specific clothing and/or grooming standards. The wearing of turbans and burkas or sporting facial hair is a common practice in many religions.
How does this affect the use of PPE and RPE in the Middle East?
In the construction sector, many organisations impose ‘blanket rules’ for wearing PPE and RPE. This may be appropriate for the majority of workers but may pose difficulties or even make it impossible for some workers to comply with based on their religion.
Take the example of industrial safety helmets such as hard hats. A blanket rule onsite that all workers must wear hard hats prevents any employees whose religion imposes the wearing of turbans from working on site.
In the United Kingdom (UK), this has been written into legislation, exempting certain turban-wearers from having to wear head protection with limited exceptions. These specifics in legislation do not exist in Middle Eastern countries, so organisations should consider how they manage these workers. Risk assessment of these groups may provide justification of an exemption from the rule; however, if a risk assessment finds that it is safe to not wear a hard hat, then it could be asked why other workers are required to wear hard hats in the first place.
A similar issue could be attributed to female workers wearing headwear such as burkas and hijabs. With more and more woman working in the construction and manufacturing sectors of Middle Eastern countries, PPE and RPE compatibility is becoming more important. Some progress into this has already been made. In the UK, for example, a Thames Tideway Safety Practitioner worked with PPE manufacturers to create burkafriendly workwear6.
Many men in the Middle East have beards. This presents a challenge for those in construction and manufacturing industries who must use RPE. Many items of RPE require that the wearer be clean shaven. This is especially true of non-powered half and quarter-masks respirators and some self-contained breathing apparatus. As these need a tight seal around the nose and mouth to work properly, facial hair and even stubble can interfere with the efficiency of these items to provide worker protection from dusts, fumes and vapours. A face fit test of this seal by a competent person is best practice globally and in some countries is legally required.
“with more and more woman working in the construction and manufacturing sectors of Middle Eastern countries, PPE and RPE compatibility is becoming more important”
So, what can organisations do when workers sport facial hair? The most obvious solution would be to utilise a higher level of control than RPE. Elimination, substitution or engineering control of sources of breathable contaminant are the best ways of dealing with this issue. However, where this is not possible, alternate RPE controls can be found that provide similar protection against these hazards. Powered air-fed respirators with protective hoods and helmets work by supplying filtered air through a breathing hose to the hood or helmet. The aboveatmospheric pressure generated prevents pollutants from the surroundings from penetrating the seal around the neck and reaching the wearer’s breathing zone.
This solution may be more expensive than a non-powered respirator, but it not only provides similar levels of protection, it does not require face fit testing and has the benefit of cooling the wearer by providing a flow of fresh air. This is useful in hot conditions or where the wearer is especially physically active. It therefore can provide a solution that does not impinge on a wearer sporting facial hair.
So, how exactly do you get workers to use their RPE, or any PPE for that matter? There are several methods that can help with achieving compliance, as shown in the following sections.
Lead by example
Do managers, directors and, most importantly, the Chief Executive Officer of the organisation wear PPE and RPE onsite? Workers are more likely to wear it if they see their leaders do the same.
Educate workers on why PPE and RPE is important – workers may not see the importance of PPE/RPE if you just give them a hard hat and tell them to wear it. If workers understand the effects of the hazards on their health and safety and how PPE and RPE can mitigate the effects, however, then they are more likely to wear it. It is also very important to train workers in how to use and maintain it properly.
Involving workers and/or their representatives in the procuring of PPE and RPE is invaluable. Also, the provision of a feedback route for workers to comment on what they wear will help you identify PPE that is not effective, before an accident or ill-health event occurs.
The Goldilocks approach
When using the right PPE and RPE and the right amounts it is easier to wear; so workers are more likely to wear it. Is it easy to clean and maintain if nondisposable? If you run out of stocks, either productivity will fall as work stops or you risk workers putting their health and safety at risk working without the right equipment.
Don’t be afraid to enforce!
Workers (and managers) can get complacent over time if not challenged. If you enforce the rules and encourage workers to challenge other workers when they don’t wear their PPE and RPE (by backing up challenges at top management level), wearing it will soon become a habit.
There are many different types of PPE and RPE that can be used in the workplace, arranging in cost from just a dollar to several hundreds. How well they protect against hazards depends on not only choosing the right type for the job, but also ensuring that they are made to the correct standards so they perform efficiently.
In the Middle East, companies tend to use British, European or American PPE standards (where no local standards exist) as a basis for procuring PPE.
The different types of PPE and RPE and their examples of relevant standards are listed below.
Head protection: hard hats (industrial safety helmets) and bump camps (industrial scalp protectors)
Industrial safety helmets BS EN 397:2012+A1:2012
Industrial scalp protectors BS EN 812:2012
Foot protection, otherwise known as safety footwear
The current standard for Safety Footwear across Europe (EN) is EN ISO 20345:2011
Eye and face protection: safety glasses, goggles, face shields and welding visors
Safety eyewear BS EN 166:2002
Equipment for eye and face protection during welding and allied process – BS EN 175:1997
Hand/arm protection: – safety gloves/gauntlets
Mechanical hazards BS EN 388:2016
Chemical and micro-organisms BS EN ISO 374:2016
Welding BS EN 12477:2001
Hearing protection: ear plugs, earmuffs/protectors
Earmuffs/protectors BS EN 352-1:2002
Ear plugs BS EN 352-2:2002
Earmuffs/protectors attached to an industrial safety helmet BS EN 352-3:2002
Protective clothing: flame protection, thermal protection, high visibility
General requirements BS EN ISO 13688: 2013, many other standards are applicable for different protective properties
Respiratory protection: disposable half and quarter masks, semi disposable half-masks, powered respirators with air-fed hoods, self-contained breathing apparatus
BS EN 136:1998 for full facemasks
BS EN 140:1999 for half and quarter masks
BS EN 12941: 1998 +A2: 2008 Powered Hoods and Helmets
BS EN 137: 2006 Self Contained Breathing Apparatus
Harnesses and other worn fall protection equipment: full body harnesses and rescue harness
Full body harnesses BS EN 361:2002
Rescue harness BS EN 1497:2007
Barrier creams and other dermal protection
Barrier creams and afterwork creams, while not strictly PPE, can be used instead of gloves to reduce absorption of certain chemicals (usually oils) by the skin on hands and lower arms. They tend to be used in activities where wearing gloves could lead to more serious injuries, such as machining operations where entanglement is a serious risk. These tend to be less effective than PPE as application can be inconsistent in workers.
The use of sunscreen is also another type of dermal protection that should be considered as part of risk control measures. As with barrier creams, sun creams are often applied inconsistently by workers, so tend to be less effective than PPE.
Storage, care, maintenance and replacement
It is important that PPE and RPE are properly looked after and stored when not in use. If they are non-disposable they should be cleaned and kept in good condition.
The UK HSE7 give the following advice to think about:
Despite several years of economic pressure, Middle Eastern countries are still heavily investing in infrastructure projects and construction organisations will need to provide consistent levels of service for their clients. Having a safe and productive workforce will help companies achieve this.
Personal protection, be that RPE, head protection, eyewear, ear protection – and everything else right down to protective toe caps – can provide significant benefit to improve the health and safety of organisations in keeping their workforce safe. Their use, however, requires careful thought of the best selection and consideration of higher level controls beforehand.
Michael Edwards is a OSH Content Developer in the Advice and Practice team at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).
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