(Photography by Derek Jones). (photo: Derek Jones)
(Photography by Derek Jones).
09.01.2006, 19:17

Playing it safe

Health and safety is an essential element of any business practice, and particularly so in the labour-intensive facilities management industry, writes Serco Gulf's Melissa-Kate Ashwell.

Health and safety is an essential element of any business practice, and particularly so in the labour-intensive facilities management industry. Melissa-Kate Ashwell, Health, Safety and Quality Manager for Serco Gulf, discusses some of the issues to consider.

Health and safety (H&S) is a critical component of any proficient facilities management company. However, the level of health and safety awareness in the GCC varies widely from company to company. Most companies with an international perspective take quality, health and safety very seriously by rigorously applying company corporate guidance and by employing internationally qualified H&S managers. Other companies view health and safety as an unnecessary overhead and, as a result, examples of unsafe practices can sometimes be seen across the Gulf.

It is vital to develop greater understanding that a good H&S management programme is not a burden on a company but a benefit.

With the spectacular rise in new buildings and consequent ongoing increase in employee numbers, it is vital to develop greater understanding that a good H&S management programme is not a burden on a company but a benefit, and that by implementing H&S procedures companies can avoid the risk of increased staff expenses and incriminating charges.

Many of the unsafe practices seen in the region are a result of companies either not being aware of laws set by the local municipalities or perhaps not applying the laws as rigorously as they should.

Many of the unsafe practices seen in the region are a result of companies either not being aware of the laws set by the local municipalities or perhaps not applying the laws as rigorously as they should. One of the key responsibilities of a professional FM company is to ensure a thorough knowledge and compliance with the legislation set out by the relevant municipality.

Simply put, the FM company should be assessing if your enterprise functions safely with a minimum risk to all persons and maximum conformity to the local laws. If a positive, structured approach is developed towards annual risk assessment, budgets can be adjusted to take account of long-term safety objectives.

A well-developed programme can reduce the number of work accidents, reduce lost time due to injury and prevent the need for replacement staff due to staff absence. In addition, corporate social responsibility will improve staff morale and work efficiency as employees are motivated to work for a company that is looking after them. It also reduces staff turnover, fostering a good company reputation, which in turn helps with the recruitment of good quality staff.

When managed by professionals, most health and safety problems can be resolved with little or no effort, and financial input is not always required. Simple solutions are free; all they involve is a little thought and some common sense.

For instance, when storing chemicals on racking, ensure that you arrange the chemicals on the shelving with a little thought; for example, store all liquids below eye level so when taking them off the shelf the risk of spillage into the eyes is prevented, and ensure that all conflicting chemicals (those that will react if mixed together, such as acids and alkalines) are stored apart.

In addition, one should consider manual handling and place all heavy items (20-30kg) on shelving between knee and waist height to prevent manual handling injuries. The UAE law states that “a worker may not lift items heavier than 50kg (men) and 20kg (women)”. Very heavy items (over 50kg) should be placed on pallets on the floor and lifted by mechanical equipment.

The benefits from implementing these simple procedures include improved efficiency, improved housekeeping and stock control. But health and safety in earnest should begin at the design phase of a project. While architects and planners, especially here in Dubai, create some of the world’s most magnificent buildings, it is hugely important to consider health and safety when designing a building. This will allow health and safety problems to be ironed out from the project’s inception.

Questions that an H&S consultant would ask are, for example: how do you clean the windows safely? Are there safe means of access/egress to all windows? Are there securing bolts to tie onto? Are there any unusual angles to be cleaned? What is the height? What is the safe working load of the glass? What type of glass has been used? How often do the windows need to be cleaned?

Very often, the quality, health and safety person is not involved until the building process is underway so it is difficult to iron out all of the problems. An H&S consultant therefore has to determine what can be done to rectify or resolve issues. For example, a confined space has to be accessed to reach control panels. Can the panel be moved out of the confined space? If not, what can be done to protect staff? At the concept stage the risks are determined and solutions devised to ensure a safe working site. If the risk can’t be removed, safe systems of work can be installed to limit the risk and reduce the effects.

Risk assessment can be divided into three main areas: property, process and people. Risks associated with the property or work site are access/egress arrangements, fire control/prevention, work area assessment, lighting, temperature, first aid requirements, drinking water availability and the structural condition of the building.

The next stage is to look at the processes involved, i.e. what are you actually doing? An office and a construction site will have different associated risks. For an office you would consider work tasks such as how long staff use a computer during the day and the ergonomics of the work station, whereas on a constructions site you would look at machinery and vehicles used and inherent risks such as falling objects and excavations.

The final stage is to assess the people involved and to look at the risks they face at work. Risks to consider are noise, vibration, dust, stress, heat or cold exposure, manual handling and other work-related health matters.

Only once each stage has been assessed can a programme be developed to reduce risks. The standard principle applied by all H&S consultants is the hierarchy of controls listed below:

→ Eliminate

→ Substitute

→ Reduce

→ Control

→ Provide information, instruction and training

→ Provide suitable personal protective equipment

This applies to all new work and existing contracts as safety does not stop once you win the contract - it’s just the beginning of the programme. And an H&S plan should be reviewed at least every six months to ensure that it’s up-to-date and relevant. But H&S is not always about the workplace only. A concern that presents itself in the GCC is that, unlike in Europe or America, staff are often provided with accommodation, transportation and food by their company. Responsible companies should therefore adopt and apply the same principles for health and safety for these non-work aspects. Staff in the UAE are on company-sponsored visas and are therefore the company’s responsibility 100 per cent of the time.

One specific challenge is company-provided accommodation. This should be risk-assessed to ensure that at least minimum standards of health and safety are applied to accommodation properties, as they would be to a company’s own work premises. The standard of accommodation varies drastically in Dubai so it is important to complete a risk assessment, taking into account the access/egress arrangements, fire control/prevention, lighting, temperature, first aid requirements, drinking water availability, welfare provisions and the structural condition of the building.

The same principles apply to company transportation. Is the vehicle safe? Is the driver trained? Is the speed limit applied? Finally, is the food provided safe and sufficient? These additional challenges should be faced in the same way as operational health and safety risks. As in any good business management programme, you need to ensure that your staff can get to work and are fit to work once they get there.

Health and safety should not be confined to a department or person but rather should transcend all levels of a company’s hierarchy. Health and safety should not be outsourced as a separate work-related task as it is an integral part of any business and encompasses all departments. The responsibility cannot be delegated from company management. 

In conclusion, whether a company chooses to outsource its facilities management or to implement it internally, it has an inherent responsibility to ensure that H&S is given sufficient importance within the overall management structure and that its facilities management subcontractor has the appropriate quality, health and safety regime in place.

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