International OHS: Managing safety for the Islamic AVE

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Some weeks ago, Prevencontrol attended the second day of the conference Risk Prevention in the International Area organized by the Asturian Federation of Employers (FADE). In this course, four representatives participated from the Spanish conglomerate of companies (Adif, Cobra, Renfe, Indra, OHL … among others) who are currently working on the construction of the AVE that will connect the holy cities of Medina and Mecca: the largest Spanish investment ever made abroad.

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As you can imagine, safety management in such a unique and distant country like Saudi Arabia is not easy. Aspects such as weather conditions, lack of a safety culture in the local staff, high levels of road accidents, access to health care conditioned by social status, ambiguity and instability of the legislation of the country in OHS or cultural diversity and language of such a broad group of workers are some of the factors that these companies must deal with to maintain the viability of the project. We have analysed some of these aspects in a post about the peculiarities of working in the Middle East. However, the following enlarges on the analysis of the most important factors:

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam

Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly the most restrictive country in terms of religious freedom. Most of its population is Muslim and there are spaces vetted for those who practice a different religion. The country has a specific police force, the mutawa,for the enforcement of Islamic rites by the Saudi population. Islam one of the religions that most affects the lifestyle of its followers, which should be known by foreign companies, if they do not want to be immersed in endless setbacks:

  • Prayers: Muslims must pray five times a day: 2-3 of which are done within working hours. These prayers are sacred and cannot be postponed, hence companies of the Medina-Mecca AVE have made available numerous small mosques near the site for the workers.hajj-2007-6
  • Ramadan: During the period of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar) faithful Muslims must fast from dawn to sunset. As you can imagine, the risk of dehydration in such a hot country during this period is quite significant and corresponding action measures must be included in the safety planning. Moreover, during the Ramadan a Muslim cannot work more than six hours a day. As a curiosity, Saudi labour laws require work stoppage at construction sites when the temperature reaches 50°C.

A high degree of cultural diversity.

The cultural diversity of the workforce in Saudi Arabia has a very high degree, which is also reflected in the the Medina-Mecca AVE line construction project. This is due to the magnitude of the project as well as the intrinsic multiculturalism of the country. In addition, there is the problem of language: the official is Arabic but many workers are foreigners and do not know the language; on the other hand, not all local workers know English …

Imagine now the communication problems that these companies face, especially when what is at issue is to train a very heterogeneous group in terms of occupational health and safety. In these cases, the solution is to design training with a high dose of illustrative resources(photos, drawings, visual diagrams…). In turn, it is a good idea to segment the training sessions and have them be taught by a local person in the country so they can solve any doubts on the part of all employees.

A huge accident rae on the roads

Welcome to Saudi Arabia, one of the countries with the highest rates of fatal road accidents in the world. As usual in this type of area, the problem is not a lack of regulation, but the low level of compliance with it, the structural weaknesses of the road network and the absence of good practices by users, motivated in part by affordable access to fuel.

000_1HajjThe numbers of road accidents are such that the Spanish companies assigned to the project have chosen to change the place of residence of some employees living the furthest away from the worksite. In a country where  a fatal accident occurs on the road every hour, road safety becomes one of the key points of safety management.

A loose, changing and poorly implemented legislation

In Saudi Arabia, the labour regulatory framework for health and safety conditions at work are made up mainly by the Labour Law and Social Insurance Law. However, although the legal context is much more limited than in other countries, Saudi law has a high degree of dynamism that requires companies located there to allocate resources to keep updated and remain in compliance with the law. Faced with this problem, the best solution is to establish an exquisite relationship of mutual collaboration with the administration of the country.

Furthermore, the level of regulation implementation is weak. In the words of Diego Fernandez de la Vega, SST director of the High Speed ​​Meca-Medina project, “I have been in Saudi Arabia for two years and I have yet to see the Labour Inspectorate.” But beware! The Saudis are a very strict people with law enforcement, especially when a breach of the law results in harm. Hence, the Spanish companies assigned there “must be the inspectors themselves,” since “if there is a death in the work, someone must pay, and paid with blood”.

If you need support in international OSH area, do not hesitate to contact PrevenControl. We have guides made in house for over 30 countries.

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PrevenControl es la firma especializada en seguridad y salud laboral que propone soluciones eficaces e innovadoras para la mejora del negocio y la reputación de sus clientes a través de la consultoría, el uso de la tecnología y la formación.
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