Dubai: Three Indian construction workers were crushed to death when a ceiling collapsed on them in Ajman last year, according to Human Rights Watch's (HRW) World Report 2009 - an official said the concrete was too heavy to be supported by scaffolding.

In the same year, two Pakistanis working in Abu Dhabi died when a well they were digging caved in, sealing their fate, states HRW.

The HRW report notes that across the country last year, "workers died on the job due to apparently unsafe working conditions".

Responding to a string of international criticisms in recent years, authorities have cracked down on erring construction firms and increased labour camp inspections to improve living conditions.

The government has also issued strict orders to give workers a mid-day break between 12.30pm-3pm during the summer months of July and August. Under UAE labour law, construction firms must also report all workplace deaths and injuries to be investigated by authorities.

And it now appears developers, construction firms and contractors are taking matters into their own hands through a members-only industry group to prevent workplace deaths rather than count body bags in the aftermath.

Launched in January, 2008, 18 construction firms joined Dubai-based Build Safe UAE group to report their own accidents and issue their own safety alerts to other group members - 21 months later, the Build Safe UAE group now enjoys a roster of 31 corporate members.

Accidents down

The big surprise is that as membership numbers go up, death and accident numbers are going down on 283 construction project sites in the country being self-monitored by Build Safe UAE member firms.

Statistics, for example, provided by the companies reveal there has been a significant drop in workplace fatalities from 20 deaths in 2008 to four deaths in the first eight months of 2009.

Worker deaths from falling from heights at construction sites dropped from eight incidents last year to one incident on record this year as of August 2009, according to what's called the Shared Safety Statistics Database collected by Build Safe UAE.

Lost-time injuries - in which a worker took more than three days to recover - fell from 690 incidents in 2008 to 318 so far this year. Injuries ranged from amputations and crushing incidents to falling objects and fires or explosions.

Elias McGrath, Build Safe UAE Group Administrator, said the new numbers are a good start.

"Obviously, it's making a difference for these contractors already," said McGrath. "The idea is to see the major trends that are occurring. We have to do something about it."

Death plunge

With some firm numbers in hand, Build Safe UAE realised there was a problem with workers plunging to their deaths while working at serious heights.

Build Safe UAE issued a new paper, Best Practices Guidelines for Working at Heights, and member companies have since installed everything from minimum guard rails to maximum measures such as screened-in floors during construction which appear to have reduced deaths due to workers falling from heights, McGrath said.

Build Safe UAE has embarked on other creative safety awareness campaigns such as comic-style handouts to workers.

"We see a collaborative approach as the best way forward," McGrath said. "We can all work together to reduce the accident trend line. Companies need to ensure there is zero tolerance on the issues."

Firmly committed

Kevin Stovell, Mott MacDonald's Managing Director for Middle East and South Asia, told XPRESS he firmly believes in Build Safe UAE and will continue to work within the group to make the industry safer for everyone. Mott MacDonald's is an engineering consultancy firm.

"Four fatalities on construction sites in the UAE this year is still four too many," said Stovell.

"However, the reduction in both fatalities and accidents reported is welcome news and is evidence of the success of Build Safe, an initiative that we strongly support and promote."

Andrew Broderick, Head of Health, Safety and Environment for Aldar Properties, is the Abu Dhabi spokesperson for Build Safe UAE. He said that Aldar was the first developer to become a full signatory member.

"Since the official signing ceremony all companies working on our behalf are receiving weekly information from Build Safe, such as safety alerts, presentation, toolbox talks etc… and this information can be found on site health and safety notice boards across Aldar projects. Seeing this action and implementation is very satisfying and pleasing as the message is getting across to the workforce."

Aldar is so impressed with the new safety initiative, Broderick said, "it is now an Aldar contractual requirement for all who work on our behalf to join Build Safe UAE as it is part of the Aldar's Health and Safety Policy."