The GCCs’ construction industry continues to grow. According to a survey in April 2019 by law firm Pinsent Mason, construction companies in the area expect to receive more orders this year than last, with Saudi Arabia identified as being the leading market to deliver growth.

With the increase in large construction projects – the majority of the companies surveyed are involved in projects with a value between US$27.22mn and US$136.12mn – comes an increased focus on health and safety management programmes. Adoption of updated international Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) standards means many multinational corporations and government bodies are now leading the way in best practice by implementing robust risk-based programmes which seek to protect both the employee and the employer from harm.

The PPE market

One very visible development in the attitudes towards more robust occupational health and safety management during the last decade alone is with regards to personal protective equipment (PPE). A report from Grand View Research, Inc Conventions revealed that the Asia Pacific and Middle East personal protective clothing (PPE) market is expected to reach USD 17.55 billion by 2022, driven by the growing awareness of the need for PPE; more stringent regulations placed on employers particularly in high risk industries such as the construction market and Sheikh Mohammed’s Dubai Industrial Strategy 2030 launched to increase the total output and value-addition of the manufacturing sector.

Muralikannan Navaneethakrishnan, a senior assessor for health and safety specialist Lloyd’s Register (LR) in the United Arab Emirates comments: “When I first started working in the UAE around 12 years ago, awareness of adequate personal protective equipment was low, but over the last decade, we’ve seen huge improvements.

“Ten years ago, you would regularly see workers at height without safety harnesses or appropriate scaffolding, but there were also many other problems which weren’t quite so obvious. These included employees using standard dust masks when working in a chemical industrial plant rather than the appropriate chemical mask, or wearing the wrong ear protectors when working in areas of extreme noise. I used to often see workers in their usual office shoes on a high-risk construction site, rather than wearing specialist safety shoes. This has all changed significantly over the last decade, driven by both the local governments and large multinational companies which are making real progress in raising awareness of the risks, particularly in the construction industry and oil and gas sector.”

While local governments are helping to drive change, regulations in the UAE differ from Emirate to Emirate and can therefore be confusing, particularly for companies building across several locations. For example, the Ministry of Labour, Dubai Municipality, Abu Dhabi Municipality, Zones Corp and the Abu Dhabi Occupational Safety and Health Centre each produce their own health and safety legislation and guidance, as well as documentation.

“Recent developments in occupational health and safety legislation and regulations have helped drive positive changes in behaviour, although the changes differ across areas,” continued Muralikannan. “However, many government organisations and multinational companies operating out of the UAE are driving their own progress through certification to the latest international OHS standard, ISO 45001. Being certified to this standard means those organisations have successfully turned any uncontrolled hazards into controlled risks, safeguarding the wellbeing of both employees and business at the same time. In fact, the Middle East region is second only to the UK in the number of LR customers which have either adopted ISO 45001 already or have applied to migrate across from the previous standard, OHSAS 18001.”

Working in extreme heat brings extreme challenges in the management of PPE and health and safety programmes, particularly in high-risk industries such as construction, in which large infrastructure projects continue to be implemented across the UAE. More complex projects involve bigger risks and an understanding of adequate OHS requirements is critical in accident prevention.

Muralikannan says: “The majority of the UAE workforce is made up of expats – many of whom have emigrated from Asia or the Asian subcontinent. Some have little to no prior knowledge of working on large scale construction projects before they arrive and if adequate training is not given then they may not understand the importance of wearing appropriate PPE. I’ve seen many labourers use the heat as a reason to not wear the right protective clothing. While local laws dictate that no-one can work during the hottest midday hours during the summer, the reality is that many are under pressure to keep working, both to ensure projects are delivered on time, and for those workers to continue to earn money to send back home to their families. During Ramadan, the months of fasting are particularly challenging, especially when temperatures soar to above 50°C and the right approach to PPE is critical to protect employees’ safety and prevent accidents.”

Accidents can be anything from loss of life to falls from height to slips and trips. The International Labour Organization (ILO) calculates that over 2.78 million people die each year because of work related illnesses, which equates to over 7,500 people each day. A further 374 million non-fatal accidents and work related illnesses are reported annually, leading to human misery and a significant cost to the economy.

An article in the UK’s The Guardian in 2017 claimed that according to the campaign group Human Rights Watch “many thousands of migrant workers on construction sites in Qatar, including those building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, are being subjected to potentially life-threatening heat and humidity,” with “millions of workers in jeopardy including those in the GCC countries – Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – because statutory work breaks imposed during summer midday hours do not protect them sufficiently.”

Prior to this, Raed Al Marzouqi, head of Occupational Health and Safety at Dubai Municipality, told delegates at a Conference in Abu Dhabi, that 99 per cent of work-related accidents in the UAE are the fault of the employer. He also said companies operating in high risk environments that fail to provide basic requirements to protect their employees will be penalised: “If you bypass the system and rules, authorities will take disciplinary action; if you do not provide the right training, right tools and right protection for the workers you will be held responsible,” he said. “In a country like the UAE, we have a diversity of workers and when we take them in, we have an obligation towards them, like they do towards us.” The BOHS Worker Health Protection Conference was told of instances in which workers had suffocated due to a lack of protection from harmful materials, while others died in falls from buildings because they were not wearing harnesses. Basic training in the construction industry is also often not being delivered properly, it was claimed.

“A robust OHS management programme is of huge, if not critical importance to employers who need to demonstrate that they are taking due care and attention in safeguarding their workforces in hazardous situations on-site. In this area, the heat is one of the major hazards we must contend with – and a lack of training is prevalent,” continues Muralikannan.

“many labourers use the heat as a reason to not wear the right protective clothing”

“It can be something as simple as not enough comfortable, or properly fitting PPE available. As we have a large expat workforce here, there is demand for greater size variations which isn’t always available. While this may not seem a significant problem, it makes a big difference because people won’t wear clothes that don’t fit properly. The updated regulation is making a difference, not least because there are now huge fines implemented for contravening the rules. These challenges are also driving innovation in the PPE market and this technology will be instrumental in helping manage risk. For example, in 2016, Emirates NBD gave workers air-conditioned vests during Ramadan, which when submerged in water for ten minutes, reduced the temperature of the wearer by 5-7°C through a cooling mechanism in the design. It’s a great initiative as it only requires access to water, not on-site refrigeration.”

Why choose ISO 45001?

ISO 45001:2018 was developed as a framework to help organisations improve employee safety, reduce workplace risks and create healthier and safer working conditions. Rather than being a standalone activity, ISO 45001 weaves OHS into the fabric of an organisation – starting by examining the context of the organisation (clause 4.1). Put simply, this is about how the organisation operates and the internal and external factors that shape it. Workers (and their representatives, where they exist) are front and centre within the standard: from understanding the needs and expectations of workers and other stakeholders (clause 4.2), to explicit requirements for worker participation and consultation (clause 5.4). This is important because it gives the workforce an opportunity to raise concerns – and there are requirements for leaders to ensure that any barriers to participation, such as language or literacy or fear of reprisals are minimised.

“taking a risk-based approach is a key element of ISO 45001”

Taking a risk-based approach is a key element of ISO 45001. The clause on hazard identification and assessment of risks and opportunities (clause 6.1.2) builds on many organisations’ practices of hazard identification to consider proactive opportunities to improve health and safety performance. The clause on eliminating hazards and reducing OHS risks (8.1.2) explicitly mentions the use of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). The use of PPE should be as a last resort in the hierarchy of controls when the hazard cannot be eliminated, substituted with a less hazardous process or reorganised. Contractors and outsourced functions and processes are also covered within ISO 45001 – improving the safety and health of the wider supply chain and increasing the accountability of organisations that outsource potentially more hazardous operations.

Muralikannan continues: “The larger organisations have been keen to adopt ISO 45001 and in some cases, they have put in place large scale changes to systems and cultures to ensure they have the most effective risk-based processes in place. What’s really important is that senior management leads from the top – without the involvement of the leadership team it can be difficult to get everyone on board, especially if you’re making changes to company culture. It will now be interesting to see if the small to medium sized businesses also look to be certified for this standard.”

ISO 45001 was published in March 2018 to help organisations provide a safe and healthy workplace for all. It aligns the range of national OHS management system standards (including OHSAS 18001 which was developed in 1999) into one, with the intention of ruling-out confusion and market fragmentation.

Since the launch of OHSAS 18001, it has been used by organisations in nearly 130 countries to improve OHS performance. While it aligned some national and regional standards, not all were supported and there was still some confusion in the market. ISO 45001 has the same aims as OHSAS 18001, but it uses Annex SL – the same high-level structure used for all new and revised ISO standards.

Annex SL includes common themes which make it easier for organisations to integrate their management systems, reducing duplication and potentially cost. These cover organisational context, leadership, risk-based thinking and an enhanced process approach.

“ISO 45001 is applicable to any organisation, no matter the size, industry sector or location. If an organisation doesn’t have a formal OHS management system in place, then it’s an opportunity to demonstrate commitment to preventing work-related injury and ill health and to promote a safe and healthy workforce. Those organisations already certified to OHSAS 18001 have three years from March 2018 to migrate to ISO 45001,” explains Muralikannan.

LR has assessed many organisations and businesses in the GCC with regards to OHSAS 18001 and is now helping several in their ISO 45001 migration, including Abu Dhabi Police, Abu Dhabi Ports, Abu Dhabi Airports, Arabtec, General Civil Aviation Authority, EMAAR, ENOC, ADNOC, Petrofac, Aghtia Group, SERCO, WS Atkins and Partners ME, Dubai Drydocks, Kone ME, Aggreko, Thales International ME, Gulf Catering Co, MARS, and BASF Construction chemicals.


“There are dozens of OHS training courses in the area, so companies don’t really have an excuse for not training their staff,” continues Muralikannan. “Whether it’s preparing for migration from OHSAS 18001 to ISO 45001, an internal ISO 45001 auditor course or a more basic introduction to ISO 45001, there are training courses available to help internal health and safety staff or auditors understand the requirements and see examples of best practice frameworks. Many of the courses will also outline any legal obligations organisations have in how to conduct a risk assessment and implement controls.

“Our most popular training courses are the OHS Managements Systems Auditor and ISO 45001: 2018 Internal Auditor courses. These both upskill safety managers and internal auditors who have a challenging day-to-day role. It’s important they are kept up to speed with the latest regulations, legislation and best practice – this can add enormous value in how they do their daily job and ensure they become a key asset in the formation and maintenance of a positive OHS workplace culture,” concludes Muralikannan.