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The universal language of safety
Tragically, thousands of workers are injured or die in industrial construction accidents around the world each year. But experience at one giant energy project shows the number could be much lower. At the Pearl GTL plant in Qatar, careful planning, industrial theatre and tough enforcement helped workers avoid harm.
Under a desert sun, workers in hard hats and coveralls gathered below a scaffold jutting 12 metres (about 40 feet) into the sky.
Suddenly, a human shape hurtled down from above, landing with a sickening thud amplified by nearby microphones.
“When the mannequin hit, you could hear everyone gasp,” said Talal Mhanna, safety manager for Consolidated Contractors Group, the largest construction contractor on the Pearl project.
This dramatic exercise emphasised the potentially gruesome consequences of failing to use a safety harness when working high above the ground.
For a workforce comprised of people from more than 60 countries and speaking at least as many languages, the sight and sound of a man-sized dummy crashing to the ground broke through communications barriers.
It was one of the techniques employed in a uniquely multifaceted safety programme that reduced the risk of accidents during the five-year construction of the plant, which in 2011 began turning natural gas into liquid fuel and other products.
“I can proudly say that we have sent all those who came to work for us on the Pearl project – all 35,000 of them – back to their families as healthy as when they arrived,” said Talal.
On a day when workers took time out from their regular jobs to focus on safety, members of the construction team pledge to help each other and intervene if they see a potentially hazardous situation.
From the outset, the project’s leaders grappled with how to make Pearl a safe place to work.
At the peak of construction, 52,000 workers swarmed over an area the size of London’s Hyde Park. Many thousands of them had never worked on a construction site before.
Leaders employed many tactics to ensure safety remained a priority. They invested millions of dollars in training for everyone from supervisors to labourers, offering it in seven languages, including Hindi, Arabic and Thai.
Periodic day-long safety workshops for the entire work force used theatrical sketches to dramatise safety procedures.
A recurring theme was the importance for every worker to return safely to their families.
Workers were constantly encouraged to protect themselves and fellow workers. But strict enforcement of Shell’s 12 Life Saving Rules also underlined how serious leaders were about safety.
The rules help workers avoid risky situations, such as walking under a crane’s load. More than 1,000 people were asked to leave the project because they failed to follow them.
Tracking driver behaviour
Reducing the potential for traffic accidents was a priority, since workers drove 300 million kilometres (about 190 million miles) during construction.
No one drove their personal vehicle to the desert construction site.
The project bussed workers – and the project’s top leadership – to and from work every day. Electronic monitoring equipment in 5,000 cars and trucks tracked driver behaviour.
Anyone driving without a seat belt, speeding, or using other unsafe practices was warned. Repeat offenders were made to leave.
By the time major construction ended, workers had experienced about one-tenth the typical number of accidents for such a project in the oil and gas industry.
In 2010 they achieved 77 million hours of work without a serious injury.