Covering Qatar's Construction and Fire Safety Crisis


Safety First – or Not?
By Dona Fernandes
Qatar’s hazardous construction sites endanger workers

Qatar’s High Rises Put Tenants at Risk
By Ahoud Al-Thani
Qatar’s high rises face structural inefficiencies

Building a Culture of Safety in Qatar
By Jassim Kunji
A strategy to combat worker casualties in Qatar

Building a Culture of Safety in Qatar

Construction in Doha's Musherib neighborhood. By Saif Alnuweiri, 2013.

Construction in Musherib. By Saif Alnuweiri, 2013.

By Jassim Kunji

A city rising from the sand, skyscrapers replacing tents in a matter of decades.

It’s tale that has become so synonymous with the recent history of the Arabian Gulf that it is almost a cliché. Yet, these images remain some of the most overt examples of the tremendous progress made in nations like Qatar in a remarkably short space of time, fueled by the wealth brought on by the country’s export of oil and natural gas. A Human Rights Watch report, “Building a Better World Cup,” stated: “In 2009 Qatar’s construction industry had one of the highest growth rates in the region, with ambitious projects planned around the country.”

Much attention has been given to the societal growing pains experienced with such a rapid transformation. Yet a more physical threat may arise from these changes as well: a hazardous environment, the unintended byproduct of the quick pace of construction. Qatar finds itself having to establish a framework of codes and regulations at the same time that much of the construction it is meant to regulate is taking place. The Human Rights Watch report said of the codes that do exist that “many workers fail to benefit from the provisions because of inadequate oversight and implementation.”

The dangers of this approach were brought into sharp focus by the tragic events of the Villaggio fire. On the morning of May 28, 2012, an electrical malfunction caused a light bulb in the Nike shop in Doha’s Villaggio Mall to burst, lighting the shop on fire, according to testimony given by Civil Defence officials and fire inspectors at recent court hearings on the fire. The smoke soon spread to the upstairs Gympanzee daycare, killing 13 children, two firefighters, and four of the daycare’s employees. A number of safety features that were lacking or substandard — such as only one fire exit in Gympanzee and sprinklers that failed to turn on — have led to a criminal prosecution case, as well as questions about safety standards in Qatar at large.

Such a lapse in enforcement of regulations has led to an increased emphasis on safety, but fires are not the only structure-related accidents that occur. The death of construction workers on site is also common. According to Qatar’s National Health Strategy 2011-2016, experts estimate the rate of occupational fatality is four or five worker deaths per 100,000 workers. The actual rate may be even higher, with a disparity often found between the fatalities reported by government agencies and the statistics cited by the respective embassies of the countries of the dead workers.

There are “disturbing discrepancies between the number of construction worker deaths reported by local embassies [in Qatar] and the number reported by the government. For example, the Nepali embassy reported 191 Nepali worker deaths in 2010, and the Indian embassy reported 98 Indian migrant deaths, including 45 deaths of young, low-income workers due to cardiac arrest, thus far in 2012…. Yet in a letter to Human Rights Watch, Labor Ministry officials stated that, ‘Over the last three years, there have been no more than six cases of worker deaths.’” according to the recent Human Rights Watch report.

Either way, the rate death among construction workers is unusually high. The United States had a fatal occupational injury rate of 3.5 workers per 100,000 in 2011, while the United Kingdom boasts a rate of .6 deaths per 100,000 workers. Qatar’s rate is double that of the European Union, according to the National Health Strategy 2011-2016. Considering Qatar’s impressive financial resources, the question arises why its rate of workplace–related deaths is higher than other developed regions.

According to the website of Human Rights Watch, Qatari authorities attribute most of the deaths to falls, although a number may be caused by heat stroke or other causes. Hamad Medical Corporation stated more than 1,000 people were injured after falling from heights in the last year, an increase of 67% from 2008 which saw 600 people injured from such falls.

“Safety is a culture,” said Benjamin Aniamma, HSE Engineer at Turner International Middle East (TIME), the company tasked with oversight of Qatar’s Msheireb Properties project, which is constructing a downtown area in Doha’s Musherib district. The 20 billion QR project has one of the best records on worker safety, with more than 20 million hours without lost time injury. Time loss injury occurs when a worker is injured enough to be unable to continue his normal duties one day after the injury, and can be used as an indicator of how safe a works space is.

“Here we are awarding a contract to an international company, and a local company as a joint venture,” Aniamma said. “The international company will bring in standards, from U.S. or Britain and the local company will be following the modus operandi.”

Another major segment of construction in Qatar occurs through Qatar Foundation, including Education City, home of six prominent American Universities and various other institutions. ASTAD Project Management, which arose as a joint venture between Qatar Foundation and Qatar Petroleum, handles Qatar Foundation’s construction projects “from conception to completion,” in addition to other projects such as the construction of the headquarters for the Supreme Education Council and Qatar Petroleum.

Adnan Haddad, a civil and infrastructure engineer at ASTAD, says the venture struggles with similar issues. “Codes are respected more in a place like the United States,” Haddad said. “Here there’s no tradition of a code or public ordinances.” This can have a negative effect on safety, allowing for recklessness by both contractors and the laborers to flourish.

“Some contractors will place the importance of completing projects on deadline over preventing casualties, and then on the other side, sometimes laborers will do something they think is okay when it’s not because the don’t have a background in it,” he said.

The occurrence of exploitative practices by contractors is compounded by the lack of a system of accountability. “In the U.S. you can be sued if something goes wrong, but here there’s not the same level of accountability, and some people take advantage of that,” Haddad said. ASTAD itself is not free of such issues, with worker deaths common enough to drive Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar to employ an independent consultant to monitor the construction of its building in Education City.

Jonathan Cartmell, executive director of business development at Georgetown in Qatar, sees it as a necessary step to protect the reputation of the university. “We were aware of some unfortunate deaths that had happened, like when a couple of workers died when a crane collapsed on the construction site of CMU (Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar),” Cartmell said. “And we thought, ‘we’re an American institution, and if we’re going to have our name on it, it should be up to the same standards as Georgetown in the U.S.’”

Despite this extra caution, Cartmell sees the differing standards of construction between the United States and Qatar as natural. “When a country develops, it faces this type of issues- the question is whether to be reactive or proactive,” he said. “Lots of the legislation in the U.S. only occurred after safety disasters.”

Cartmell sees three things as being necessary to preventing worker death. “In any country you need to have well laid down standards,” he said. But standards can be ineffectual if organizations do not deem it important enough to follow them. “There will always be some organizations that cut corners and emphasize things other than safety, and that’s why you also need an inspection system,” he said. “And the third thing you need is a legal system to penalize people when they aren’t following the regulations – the penalty side is necessary.”

In the absence of such a comprehensive system of regulation however, the burden of safety remains with companies such as TIME and ASTAD, and their desire to limit casualties. “On all the projects we work on its our intention to be bullet proof in terms of safety,” Haddad said of ASTAD. “There is always a subcontractor who monitors in terms of safety, and we regularly observe the worksites to make sure that they are clean and safe..”

Such precautions still sometimes fall short. “You cannot cover a site with three or four people, and even though there are very good standards, sometimes accidents happen,” he added.

Another issue within “safety culture” is the awareness of the workers themselves. Some workers remain ignorant of safety procedures and how they can protect themselves. Many also lack the proper training to carry out their jobs in a safe manner.

TIME claims it is addressing this issue by focusing a major part of its prevention plan on proper training. “We insist that every worker on this project has to be trained a minimum of 10 hours either in the American standard or the British standard,” Aniamma said of their policy. Managers are required to have a minimum of 30 hours.

The training also includes specialized instruction in the specific role that the laborers will be working in. “If somebody is working on a scaffolding he has to be trained in that field, has to be certified,” he said, adding that other companies often ignore this training, resulting in incompetent workers. “Most projects don’t do training, don’t have the budget for it.”

TIME also carries out surprise inspections beyond the internal auditing done by the contractors they employ. The company also ensures there is a specially trained safety manager for every 200 workers. In addition, nurses are available on site, as well as a continuous liaison with Hamad Medical Corporation.

With the 2022 World Cup on the horizon, Qatar will need to ensure that more construction firms follow the example of TIME if it wants to avoid intense scrutiny of its treatment of construction workers and migrant laborers.

Qatar’s High Rises Put Tenants at Risk

Zig Zag Towers, Doha, Qatar. By Saif Alnuweiri, 2013

Zig Zag Towers, Doha, Qatar
By Saif Alnuweiri, 2013

By Ahoud Al-Thani

A drive along Doha’s Corniche easily shows the changes Qatar is going through. Skyscrapers shoot towards the sky and tower over the city in every shape and size.

Qatar is clearly on a fast track towards modernization; high rises are being constructed all over the city to accommodate the increasing population, and a growing number of international businesses are investing in the country.

However, the need to construct more and more new buildings in a limited amount of time, namely before the 2022 World Cup, has prompted residents and experts to speculate whether those buildings are safe.

The population’s awareness about building safety standards has been even more sensitive since a fire devastated Villaggio, one of Doha’s biggest shopping malls, on May. 28, 2012. The blaze and its resulting smoke left 19 people dead, 13 of whom were children.

The fire ignited when a light bulb in the mall’s Nike shop burst. The bulb’s flammable material “came into contact with the hot plastic of the insulators within the device,” according to an official from the Civil Defence who testified at a recent court trial on the fire. Doha News reported a malfunction had caused the temperature of the electric conductor to spike, burning the insulators.

According to Civil Defence testimony at the court hearings, as reported by Doha News, toxic smoke then spread into the Gympanzee daycare centre, where 13 children suffocated from carbon monoxide. Sprinklers didn’t turn on, as witnesses explained, and fire fighters took longer than needed to arrive on the location and locate the nursery.

The Villaggio fire has sparked concern among Qatar’s residents over building safety standards, and many have questioned whether Qatar’s Civil Defence can be relied upon to protect the population.

“One evening in the fall [of 2012] the fire alarms went off at 4 a.m. and they persisted longer than they usually do. My husband and I were concerned, especially after the Villaggio fire,” said Anne Sobel, a lecturer in the communication program at Northwestern University in Qatar.

Sobel lived at 44 West Bay where, she says, the fire alarms would go off regularly. However, during this particular alarm, they were more anxious than usual because the Villaggio fire was still fresh in their minds.

“So many people were calling downstairs, we couldn’t reach the front desk to find out if it was a false alarm. We evacuated and walked down all 39 flights. It was better safe than sorry, but it was also very frustrating,” Sobel said.

The fire alarm continued to ring for approximately 30 to 45 minutes, and then finally residents were told that it was safe to go back in. However, they were not told that it was safe by an actual fire official, since Civil Defence only arrived to the location two hours after the alarms went off, she explained.

“The building was never properly cleared before we went back in. We were nervous because, again, the Villaggio people were told it was safe and it actually wasn’t,” she said.

Sobel eventually moved to The Pearl-Qatar. “I [now] feel a lot safer being only 13 floors up in case of an emergency,” she added.

Qatar’s Civil Defence has no clear guidelines for building safety codes. Instead, when approving building plans, Civil Defence officials say they refer to British or U.S. standards. No doubt, a stricter enforcement of building codes could have prevented the Villaggio fire: in addition to the faulty light bulb and non-functioning sprinklers, the mall had been using highly flammable paint for its wall decorations; the Gympanzee nursery also lacked multiple fire exits, according to testimony given by the Villaggio fire investigator at recent court hearings.

But Civil Defence officials admit the Villaggio fire had at least one positive outcome: it pushed the country into becoming more aware of the importance of good safety regulations.

“What occurred with Villaggio has changed the way people think. It has changed the way an entire society thinks,” said Hussain Al Ali, the assistant director of preventive department at Qatar’s Civil Defence.

Al Ali says he thinks the country is finally beginning to take safety seriously and is making it a priority. But unlike in the West, he says, safety is not placed first in Qatar.

“We get calls and emails from all kinds of people informing us about a number of places that don’t have fire drills. This kind of awareness is what the Villaggio fire triggered,” Al Ali said.

The Villaggio fire is not the first fire to occur in Qatar, but it has gained the most media attention, mainly because of the large death toll.

In 2012 some 1,192 fires broke out in Qatar. These ranged from fires that ignited in cars to malls and medical facilities, based on statistics from the Ministry of Interior. In 1,088 of these cases, the Civil Defence was unable to determine the cause of the fire. Civil Defence reports 22 fire-related deaths for 2012, including the 19 who died in the Villaggio fire.

Sobel may be pleased to know Qatar’s Civil Defence says it is taking action to make its response to fires much faster, efficient and more reliable.

“We have been working with Consolidated Gulf Co. for the past three years on a fire alarm system that can help our fire fighters know exactly what to expect and how to put the fire out in the best way,” Al Ali said.

CGC is a technology company established in 1987. It deals with various types of technology, such as mobiles and security systems. Its latest technological advancement has been the Centralized Alarm Monitoring System, better known as CAMS.

“Time is money, time is everything. What happened with the Villaggio fire, if there was a response that was five minutes earlier, things could have been different. A fire is disastrous in minutes and seconds,” said Mujeeb Mohammed, a business manager at CGC.

“What this alarm does is it standardizes everything; there’s no question about how to reach somewhere or what kind of building it is, what is a sensitive area nearby. If this is all consolidated into a general information that would be ideal. That is what we’ve done,” Mohammed said.

CAMS has the ability to report and transmit information detected from the triggered alarm to a control room that can find the location of the fire and inform the Civil Defence. In a typical case, it takes 180 seconds for this process to occur.

CAMS may prove the solution for fire safety in Qatar; but the latter is not the only problem facing the country. Qatar also suffers from poor construction standards and general building and safety neglect.

A one-story building collapsed in Madinat Khalifa last year, which left one Asian worker seriously injured; drilling at another construction site nearby caused the unstable building to fall.

“There are no problems with building standards [the actual rules] or the foundation of buildings in this country. Most cases occur during constructions, or when buildings violate the building code,” said Mohamed Shaheen Al-Atiq, a municipal counsel member who represents the Madinat Khalifa South constituency.

The building that collapsed had several rooms built on its roof that violated the building code in Qatar, and resulted in it being unstable. The partitioned rooms on the roof were built with wood panels and accommodated labor workers.

“If the rules are followed and they don’t use the wrong material to construct anything additional after the building is constructed, then these incidents wouldn’t occur,” Al-Atiq said.

Al-Atiq had complained about the building’s instability prior to its collapse, but he says his complaint was stored in a “saved” file, which is a list of complaints that may be looked at in the future. It was never addressed.

“That building had another story added to it, and it was done illegally. Materials [wood panels] were used to build it that were not accepted or given permission to be used…I did warn them about the building being unsafe,” Al-Atiq said.

Qatar is surrounded by buildings that are uniquely designed, such as the high-rise Zig Zag apartment towers, which form two adjacent zig-zagging columns, and the Torch Doha.

The Torch was originally built to be a hotel. However, plans changed and it became a flaming torch for the 2006 Asian Games instead. But now The Torch is going back to its original plans.

“In 2006, you should see the operation it took for it to turn into a hotel,” said Sherif Sabry, the hotel manager of The Torch. “The cone was already there as part of the design itself, but to operate this cone at the top of the building, they had to put gas tanks that were linked to pipes. It went through the entrance of the building into the core of the building and 300 meters high just to light that torch.”

In order to transform The Torch back into a hotel, the gas pipes had to be shut down and a fake flame was placed at the top instead.

The Torch only faced one obstacle before the Civil Defence gave hotel management permission to begin their business: “They were assuming in case of fire, and they would like to break in from higher floor, [but] how would they do that? There is a gap between the window and the room that narrows as you go higher. How can they go through the glass, the façade and the gap that is approximately three meters?” Sabry explained.

The complexity that comes as a consequence to an architecturally elaborate building can be a difficult situation to deal with when all firefighters want to do is to get in and out of a building swiftly.

“So they came up with a conclusion, that we have to open a window in the tower. So we had to cut one piece of glass and we made a door, and you can see the red arrows fixed on the glass that lead up to the 16th floor, where the fire brigade can come in,” Sabry said.

Two months later, upon The Torch’s request, the Civil Defence conducted a fire drill to make sure the hotel was up to code; it passed.

Maintaining a building’s safety is key, but high-quality standards can only be ensured if the building is regularly inspected for faults. It can give the building a better reputation, along with keeping its customers safe and happy. Unfortunately, too many apartment complexes and office buildings in Doha are not kept up to par.

Khalifa Haroon, founder of and head of interactive and innovation at Vodafone, purchased a 55 square meter studio apartment at The Pearl-Qatar about three years ago. “I was investing in various property and believed in the lifestyle that The Pearl was selling,” Haroon said.

The Pearl is an artificial island that was constructed on a defunct pearl diving location; the area has been transformed into a residential area with capacious apartments, luxury retail shops and five-star restaurants.

For the large amount of money they spend to purchase a luxurious lifestyle at the Pearl, customers and tenants do expect the development to maintain high quality standards.

Haroon was impressed by the facilities available at The Pearl apartment building he chose, like the outdoor infinity pool, private beach and clean gym. However, slight issues with the apartment disappointed him.

“Crack in the wall, and leak from ceiling. [I’m] still waiting for it to be resolved,” Haroon said..

He encountered other structural problems with the apartment, which were later fixed by the management company.

“Small things like alignment of light switch, stained marble and grouting finishing were sorted,” he stated.

The Zig Zag Towers, which contain approximately 700 apartments, faced similar complaints from its tenants. Some residents even encountered a more dangerous scenario: strong winds would sometimes cause window frames to fly open and, in some cases, the window glass shattered.

“I’ve heard of two isolated cases from people who live in The Zig Zag Towers,” said Dimitri Torchinsky, a violinist in the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra who has been living in The Zig Zag for the past three years.
He said the problem has been resolved now: “They came and tightened the window frames with screws and I haven’t seen it happen since.”

But not all complaints have been dealt with as efficiently.

“When we first moved in, there were many small things that needed fixing — tiles fell off the walls, the walls needed to be repainted, the air conditioning ducts needed to be adjusted and so on,” said Andrew Mills, assistant professor in the journalism program at Northwestern University in Qatar. Mills lived in The Zig Zag Towers from September 2009 to November 2010.

“Several months after we first moved into the apartment, we were told that our bathtub had been leaking into the apartment below and workers came and spent two days tearing apart our bathroom,” Mills said. “After they put the bathroom back together again our tub still leaked into the apartment below.”

“I complained many times to the engineer who was in charge of the building. He did his best to help us, but he was overwhelmed with complaints and requests from other residents and was often unable to help us,” he added.

Mills finally moved out of the apartment after he was offered other accommodation by Northwestern University in Qatar.

During Mills’ time at The Zig Zag Towers, Ecovert Qatar, a facilities management company, was in charge of addressing residents’ complaints. In August 2012, a new facilities management company, CBM, took over. Representatives say they are on call 24 hours a day.

“During complaint calls, we have a priority list. But during regular days, when we don’t have many calls, every complaint we attend to,” said Fros Inog, an employee of CBM, which was established in Qatar in 2009.

The Zig Zag Towers management says they reacted efficiently to residents’ complaints by hiring CBM instead to maintain safety within the towers.

“Now, people demand safety. They demand for precautions to be taken and they call us to request that,” Al Ali said.

Qatar is on the path to better upholding safety regulations and building codes, as more people are growing aware of the potential consequences and risks of poor standards. With the 2022 World Cup coming up, the world will be waiting and watching to see what kind of improvements the country makes to protect its residents and tourists.