It can be argued that the Middle East is undergoing a period of significant change. Reforms in political, social and business dynamics are having a considerable effect upon the economics of the region.
Well documented pro-business reforms will, of course, facilitate trade, thus making the region an attractive investment destination, whilst the imminence of prominent international events such as Expo 2020 and 2022’s World Cup have created a pipeline of high profile, large-scale construction projects.
As a region moves to shift its socio-political and economic landscape, the global spotlight is more likely to be trained upon its occupational health and safety (OHSE). So how does the Middle East fare, when it comes to OHSE track record, processes and procedures?
Whilst HSE regulations are evolving, the enforcement and compliance with established standards have not been uniform, and this is reflected by industrial health and safety track record of the UAE -which is markedly different to that of other regions. Currently, just 18% of construction companies in the Dubai Municipality are conducting thorough and frequent health and safety training. In 2014, it was reported that 71% of workers in Dubai had no way of documenting accidents in their workplace, with a further 74% believing that their training was outdated, making employee environments unsafe and hazardous.
This attitude towards HSE came under the spotlight last year, after news broke out of the fatalities involved with the building of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup stadium. Over 1,200 workers fatalities have been reported, with cause cited as undertraining. It has been estimated that another 4000 casualties will be reported before construction is completed.
Despite recordings of significant numbers of incidents dropping in 2018, OHSE remains a focal point which needs to be addressed in the region.8 Through research, it has been identified that the most effective way to develop an effective health and safety culture in the Middle East is through top level influence and example. However, a significant understanding of safety leadership skills is required to move beyond compliance to commitment, and this must start with senior level management taking lead.
Hofstede’s Power Dynamic
Leadership has always had a fundamental role in changing perspectives and imbedded ideals within organisations, specifically for OHSE4. The role has a significant impact in promoting an organisational culture that is supportive of outstanding safety performance4. Due to cultural differences, it proves difficult for international organisations to provide a standard OHSE structure to each region the company works in as people from different cultures perceive almost everything differently.
“Power distance” is a term that describes how people belonging to a specific culture, view power relationships – superior/subordinate relationships – between people, including the understanding that people who are not in power will accept that power is spread unequally.
For example, regarding the first dimension in social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s Power Distance model, Saudi Arabia scored 95. This translates as a ready acceptance of hierarchy without justification and an expectation of being told what to do.
In high power distance cultures, power hierarchy is obvious, and individuals show respect towards their superiors without questioning their authority (ex. UAE, Malaysia, Panama). In this dimension, the UAE scored 90, illustrating an acceptance of hierarchical order in which everybody has a place with no further justification.
Commenting on these HSE standards earlier this year, Expo 2020 Dubai’s senior vice president for real estate and delivery, Ahmed Al Khatib, said site safety is a joint responsibility: “This is about our collective commitment to do the right thing and to demonstrate leadership to all our teams to make sure the high standards Expo 2020 has set are enforced across the project. The scale of the challenge facing us will grow greater and it is up to all of us to meet that challenge head on and to succeed.”
However, for a successful HSE culture to thrive, forced compliance is not the solution. Willing compliance and commitment are the desired outcomes for optimum results, and this is achieved by authentic leadership at all levels including frontline supervisors4.
And how do we achieve authentic leadership? In a nutshell, that involves line managers rolling up their sleeves and spending time observing the work being done and giving feedback on it directly, in the moment (be it praise for a job well done or guidance feedback).
This reflects 100% the DEKRA philosophy. We believe that leaders own and create their organisation’s safety culture.
Additionally, we support leaders to understand the importance of their role in impacting organisational culture. Our comprehensive leadership training and coaching enables leaders to demonstrate safety leadership best practices and activate a transformative and authentic leadership style founded on a passion to achieve a culture that supports zero injuries.
DEKRA Organisational Reliability is a behavioural change consultancy. Working in collaboration with our clients, our approach is to influence the safety culture with the aim of ‘making a difference for the better’. We deliver the skills, methods, and motivation to change leadership attitudes, behaviours and decision-making among employees.
As discovered above, an important factor in the success of cultural change initiatives is buy-in from the top as well as the shop floor employees. Our client’s COO articulated that his goal was for the company to become the benchmark or ‘best in class’ when it came to safety culture. We therefore kicked off the process with a design workshop in which employees created a collective vision for the ideal work environment. Employee participation continued at an encouraging rate during the cultural diagnostic survey phase, with 75% responding. This lent credibility and legitimacy to the survey results and allowed our experts to pinpoint the main challenges the organisation was facing as well as to propose appropriate remedial action.
Establishing the right context and framework was crucial: having been invited into the process through workshops and encouraged by leadership support, employees felt they had a stake in the project and were more open to coaching and motivated to change.