Covering Qatar's Construction and Fire Safety Crisis

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.