The hospitality industry has always been important to the Middle East. Traditionally, it has been the rich history of countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia that has drawn tourists from across the globe. However, in more recent times the Gulf states have been spearheading a hospitality boom, and although oil and construction continue to drive the economy of the Middle East, the hospitality industry has become a hugely important part of the overall success of the region.
According to Dubai’s Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing (DTCM), the emirate attracted 14.9 million overnight visitors in 2016, with the number of Chinese and Russian visitors up by 60% and 84% respectively compared to 2015. DTCM expects the number of tourists to grow to 20 million by 2020. Dubai is now firmly established as the place where East meets West and is widely recognised as a major business, tourism and transport hub.
For businesses working in the hospitality industry there is the important issue of ensuring that guests – and the staff who care for them – are safe from harm. Good practice surrounding health, safety and the environment is now more visible, organised and integrated by local regulators. The Abu Dhabi Occupational Safety and Health Center (OSHAD), for example, was established in 2010 to implement a management system for occupational safety and health (OSH) and to oversee all OSH issues at emirate level.
At NEBOSH, the leading health, safety and environmental management awarding body, registrations for students from the region are now approaching 50,000 a year; an indicator perhaps of the focus industries in the region are placing on training their staff to work to higher standards.
The Yas Island Rotana and Centro Yas Island hotels in Abu Dhabi, UAE, are part of a portfolio of properties owned and operated by Rotana Hotel Management Corporation in 26 cities within the Middle East, Africa and Turkey. The company is not only dedicated to providing high standards to guests, but also has ambitious growth plans and a committed approach to health and safety.
The former EHS Manager for the properties, Kavitha Pillai, worked there for four years. She explained: “In Abu Dhabi people wishing to work in occupational health and safety have to be evaluated and registered with the Abu Dhabi Occupational Safety and Health Registration Programme (QUDORAT). In spite of me having three post graduate qualifications (MSc, M.Phil and an MBA) I really felt the need to further advance my skills in health and safety. I chose to achieve the NEBOSH International General Certificate in Occupational Health and Safety followed by the NEBOSH International Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety.”
The company’s Chief Operating Officer, Guy Hutchinson, added: “NEBOSH qualifications have become a badge of professionalism and trust. Having NEBOSH-qualified personnel among our staff allows us to create a safe working environment, which in turn has a positive impact on efficiency and productivity. Rotana is a leader in the Middle East’s hospitality sector, and we believe it’s incumbent upon leaders to demonstrate their commitment to maintaining a safe and healthy workplace.”
Guy continued: “If you are serious about your commitment to health and safety, it is necessary to bring on board professionals who are specialised in this area in order for your health and safety initiatives to have the desired effect. Suitably qualified managers play a vital role in helping their employers bring in positive changes in the workplace and instill a culture of safety at all levels of the organisation.
“Furthermore, their domain knowledge and expertise can be great tools in helping employers achieve regulatory compliance and protect their brand integrity, allowing them to stay safe and avoid the risk of prosecution and litigation, which can seriously damage a business’ reputation.”
Guy went on to say that creating a safe and healthy environment at all levels of the organisation is an “integral part of Rotana’s culture”. He added: “We strongly believe our employees and guests are the most valuable part of our company. Ensuring their safety and health is our first priority, and these values have been embedded in our corporate philosophy right from our inception.”
Of course having health and safety management personnel who are qualified and have been trained to an appropriate level of competence is only part of the overall picture. As health and safety consultant Karen Bennett-Jones explained, developing a health and safety culture within a hospitality environment means bringing all staff on board, regardless of their position and background.
Karen was formerly Associate Director Health, Safety and Environment at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Wild Wadi Resort in Dubai, UAE, where she worked for more than three years. She recently returned to the UK to complete a Masters degree in Occupational Health Safety and Environmental Management that NEBOSH runs in partnership with the University of Hull. She is highly qualified, holding various NEBOSH Certificate qualifications and the NEBOSH International Diploma in Occupational Health and Safety.
Part of her brief at the Jumeirah resort in Dubai was to identify training needs among all staff and deliver programmes that would improve overall health and safety culture. She explained that one of the biggest challenges she faced in her role was working with people from more than 20 different countries, who had vastly different life-experiences and what this meant in terms of their overall understanding of health and safety issues.
“A common question I would face when giving even the most simple safety instructions and guidance, would be ‘why?’,” explained Karen. “So for example, if I was to say that someone working at height needed to use a harness to stop them from falling, I would be asked ‘why do I have to do that?’. This highlights how you really have to start with the absolute basics, and explain to people that the simplest benefit of health and safety is that it will prevent you and your colleagues from coming to any harm. Because of language barriers and to really help get the message across I would use pictures to aid communication. It would often be a lightbulb moment and people would then start to change their behaviour.”
Karen went on to say how it can be easy to imagine that the hospitality industry is relatively low-risk compared to oil and gas or construction. “The first thing I would say is hospitality in Dubai often features all of the risks you find in construction. There is always some kind of development going on. Beyond that, there are all kinds of hazards, from chemicals used in swimming pools to threat of fire. I also think it is important to remember that holidaymakers don’t always behave as safely as they might do when they are at home. This makes health and safety training at all levels within the hospitality industry absolutely essential.”
Reputation and morale
In terms of the business benefits of widespread health and safety training, Karen explained it was almost always about preserving the reputation of the resort. “Reputation is absolutely fundamental to the success of the hospitality industry,” she told us.
“One thing I would always say as part of my health and safety training was that everyone now has a mobile phone with a very good camera built in to it. A photo or video can now go global through social media, and there is no public relations department in the world that can match that. So I would always stress the importance of what it might mean if a visitor sees someone who works at the resort doing something that is not safe and potentially putting themselves or someone else at harm. These things can easily make their way on to the internet, to travel blogs, TripAdvisor and so on and then the damage is done.
“When you have tourists coming from countries where a health and safety culture is well embedded, these things tend to get noticed straightaway. If things aren’t right it can leave the impression that anywhere that isn’t managing health and safety properly is probably not very well managed at all.”
The other benefit of instilling a positive health and safety and training culture is retention of staff.
“If you do a simple cost benefit analysis it is not worth having to continually onboard staff into your business. You train them up and then if they get injured or sick, or if they leave because they are unhappy you then you have to start the recruitment and onboarding process again. This has a further negative impact on culture and morale as well, because you always have new people coming in. It may sound clichéd, but happy, safe colleagues make for a better business. You can’t expect colleagues to smile, greet the guests and be incredibly helpful if every day when they walk through the door to work they find themselves in an unsafe situation.”
Health, safety and training can demonstrate a positive commitment to good management, can protect and even enhance reputation and can improve culture, morale and the retention and overall effectiveness of staff. However, there is one final benefit, which is critical in any business, that of risk mitigation.
Within the hospitality industry the issue of fire safety training is particularly important in terms of both risk prevention and risk mitigation. The consequences of fire can be severe, not just in terms of loss of human life and reputation, but the financial consequences of damage to property and loss of income.
Perhaps the most illustrative example of this is The Address Downtown hotel in Dubai. Thankfully, there was no loss of life when the hotel caught fire on New Year’s Eve 2015. The fact that only a very small number of people received minor injuries as a consequence of the high-profile blaze has been put down to its excellent evacuation procedures, which undoubtedly will have been the consequence of effective training. However, the hotel is still to reopen its doors, highlighting how preventing fires from happening in the first place is extremely important; training to give employees the skills to prevent a fire can significantly reduce the risk of it happening.
The Address Downtown is not an isolated Incident. Just this month (August 2017) Dubai’s Torch Tower caught fire for the second time in two years, with the incident being reported widely around the world.
Health, safety and training can achieve a range of important benefits for the hospitality sector in the Middle East. Most importantly it keeps guests and staff safe from harm but it also plays a vital role in preventing these high profile incidents from occurring and limiting the potential damage to both the reputation and long-term viability of the industry.