The frequent occurrence of fires on construction projects in Dubai is driving the industry to work harder and work to improve site safety says Bernadette Redfern.
The 2nd September began like any other day in Dubai. The Sheikh Zayed highway was full of commuters making their way in to Dubai’s increasingly busy business areas and as offices began to fill up staff began to speculate about how high temperatures would reach later that day. Temperatures of 50oC are not unusual in the emirate and it is common for staff to start work early to avoid the heat.
But around 7am the city seemed to stop. Traffic ground to a halt as drivers wondered what was causing acrid black smoke to fill the sky ahead.
The answer was a fire at one of Dubai’s most famous developments, the £550M Atlantis Hotel on the Palm Island. Its unmistakeable arch welcoming visitors to the Palm Island site had become instantly recognisable but on this particular day it had everyone’s attention for the wrong reasons. The project was 99% complete as the 1539 room hotel prepared for its 24 September opening date.
By 10am it was all over and Dubai’s emergency services were at the hotel assessing the damage. “We are still waiting for the official report,” said an Atlantis spokesperson. “But we are definitely going to meet our opening date. The fire affected an architectural feature, nothing structural so it has not delayed the opening.”
The fire is not the first to affect a Dubai construction site and unfortunately it is unlikely to be the last. In January 2007 at least two construction workers were killed when a fire affected the 10th floor of the 35 storey Fortune Tower at Jumeirah Lake Towers. The cause was identified as wooden scaffolding being set alight when it came into contact with metal being heated during welding.
Three workers were arrested following the incident and it later transpired that they had not been properly trained in using the equipment. Other labourers reported that there were no evacuation procedures in place, leading to outcry from charitable organisations such as Human Rights Watch.
Incidents like this are behind a number of initiatives aimed at improving construction safety in the UAE. The most successful is Build Safe Dubai. Senior industry figures decided that it was time to act to improve the region’s safety record and in early 2008 the initiative was officially launched.
“Whenever an incident occurs we gather as much information as possible and circulate it to all members in order to prevent an occurrence at another site,” explaines Build Safe chairman and managing director of Dutco Balfour Beatty, Graham McCaig.
The initiative has 58 member companies. “It is not just contractors, the group is representative of the whole industry,” said McCaig.
There is also a broad mix of nationalities from local firms such as contractors Al Habtoor, Al Jaber Engineering and Contracting, to international consultants such as EC Harris, Mott MacDonald and WSP Middle East.
McCaig says that tall building fires are the most common due to the volume of tower blocks under construction. “Nine times out of ten it is just something like rubbish catching fire from an activity like welding. It is rarely an electrical problem. Although temporary electrics have also been a problem; simple overloading of circuit boards when people just are not aware that this is dangerous,” he said.
Dubai Municipality does have a set of regulations concerning safety on sites. These were introduced in 1991. For example all rebar must be inspected by the Municipality before a concrete pour. “These [regulations] are very comprehensive but you do get contractors that don’t comply. People say that sites are unregulated but this is not true, the problem is enforcement, there are insufficient people within the Municipality to check that everything is being done.”
One possible solution said McCaig is that inspections could be carried out by third parties accredited by the Municipality.
As for the issue of poor training, contractors say standards vary from site to site. “For every major contractor doing things properly you have a site around the corner where staff where wear open sandals, no hard hats and haven’t been trained,” says the head of major projects for an international contractor.
The good news is that clients are increasingly prepared to do whatever is required to ensure site safety. “They have been antiquated in their approach but this is changing,” said the contractor.
“We have been setting up alliances with client bodies and discussing all the risks up front. They have been very receptive to this. Ten years ago nothing was reported but now there is a realisation that Dubai is part of an international market and in terms of safety it needs to polish its image.”