JEDDAH, 24 March 2003 — “It’s only by good fortune that there has not been a major scaffolding collapse in Jeddah,” Andrew Day, scaffold specialist at SGB Baroom, has told Arab News. “The combination of counterfeit product, lack of training and enforcement of existing regulations is encouraging dangerous building practice.”
The building boom in Jeddah is encouraging contractors to compete for business, which can lead to cutting corners on safety and equipment to keep costs down.
The scaffolding that is essential to the poured concrete method of construction here is one area where contractors are compromising safety.
On March 11, a building under construction collapsed. It appears that the scaffolding supporting the roof molding was either not strong enough or incorrectly set up. More than 600 workers in the Kingdom die or suffer serious injuries on construction sites every year.
Saudi Arabia has a set of safety standards for steelwork on construction sites, closely following the American Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) standards. They are highly detailed in both the manufacturing standards and construction details. “The regulations compare very favorably with the toughest in the world,” said Day.
“The problem is,” said Day, “these regulations are simply not enforced.” In a short tour of Jeddah’s main sites, he pointed out some of the potential hazards. Huge scaffolding walls were attached to buildings at only one point, many were not braced and none of the sites had guard-rails. Few workers had protective headgear and none was wearing a safety harness.
“The visible flouting of regulations is only part of the issue,” he said. The actual steel tubing and connectors are often counterfeit. “I have known 48mm water pipes sold as scaffolding,” said Day. “The possible consequences of this are terrifying.” Sheets of advertising literature of safe and OSHA standard products have been copied with other companies’ letterheads attached and the resulting dangerously sub-standard product sold off as genuine.
“In Jeddah at least four businesses are copying our scaffolding. It’s either made here or imported from other Gulf countries. They are selling it to people who, because the product looks the same, believe it is the same. It is not. They buy it because it’s much cheaper.”
Wooden scaffolding is a common sight in Jeddah. “If it is good timber, a soundly designed structure, and meets the loading requirements, it can be perfectly safe.” However, the dehydrating effect of the climate on timber means that it only has a short life. When it is used repeatedly, the danger of collapse increases dramatically.
Erecting safe scaffolding takes training and supervision. Laborers often lack either because they add to costs and contractors are unwilling to pay for them. The resulting unsound constructions are often not inspected and when they are, the rules are routinely ignored.
One site manager was recently quoted as admitting that he had seen officials bribed to turn a blind eye. “If a worker is killed,” he added, “the contractor pays both the family and the authorities an agreed sum, and the matter is swept under the carpet.”
Safety is possible, Day says. “But it needs constant vigilance and active enforcement of standards.”