Association Football or soccer has been described by many as ‘the beautiful game’, but it seems to be losing some of its luster. FIFA the administrative body of the game has been embroiled in various ongoing scandals over the last few years. This appears to be continuing with fairly recent revelations by the Guardian newspaper (UK) of significant issues related to the $100B construction of the stadia and infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. This relates to the working conditions of migrant workers within Qatar and the conditions that they are subjected to; in particular, the probability of fatalities on site seems to be extremely high. International trade unions have estimated that up to 4,000 migrant workers could die in Qatar prior to the World Cup and various causes such as falls, traffic accidents, dehydration and exhaustion have been reported. British construction firms have been put under the spotlight and are expected to employ as many as 1.5 million migrant workers over the next eight years. Much of the focus seems to be on workers towards the bottom of the supply chain and subcontractors working for these companies appear to be employing various migrants under extremely poor occupational health and safety conditions.

The International Labour Organisation and the International Trade Union Confederation estimate that between 60,000 and 108,000 fatal accidents occur every year on construction sites around the world. This is one in six of all fatal work-related accidents. We also know that 30 percent of all work-related accidents occur in construction environments. Many of these workers suffer from work-related injuries and from occupational diseases arising from exposure to chemicals and dangerous substances. Securing a job on a construction project in a developing country can lift someone out of poverty, but can drive them back into destitution very quickly in the event of injury. Sadly the causes of accidents and ill health are often well known and deaths and injuries occurring in construction are generally foreseeable and preventable.

Whilst some safety problems are common to all sites, there are specific aspects on construction projects that occur more often in the developing world. Construction can be more labour-intensive (with up to 10x more workers per activity), workers tend to be unskilled, with low literacy and will more often migrate as a group in search of employment. The workforce can have high turnover and be divided into various factions (dependent on skill or activity), which can cause major communication problems related to differences in language, religion and culture – tending to inhibit safety on the website. In developing countries, there can also be an enormous difference in safety approach between large and small contractors, and generally there is little budget available for safety and human resources. Lack of understanding of the job or equipment can often cause major accidents. Injuries can commonly go unreported. Workers themselves typically consider accidents to be due to their own negligence and just accept that construction is a dangerous occupation. Maintenance and inspection schedules are often not followed and equipment is only fixed after failure occurs. Construction safety programs can involve corruption and are seen as a byproduct of the system of bureaucratic controls. Liability for accidents is not necessarily attributed to upper management levels and can be discharged to lower levels of bureaucracy; cash payments may be accepted in lieu of pressing criminal charges.

Sadly, the alleged situation in Qatar has a familiar sound to it. The Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in April 2013 in Bangladesh involved companies towards the base of the supply chain, with very low occupational health and safety levels. Significant questions have also been asked of the quality of the construction, the illegal extension of two floors of the building and the usage of a building zoned for offices, for heavy vibrating industrial equipment. However, some action is being taken by various working groups to change construction practice in the developing world. These efforts are being addressed towards four groups: major consultants working in the developing world, clients of the construction industry in developing countries who want to ensure adequate standards of health and safety on site, financers of infrastructure construction in developing countries (for example multi-national development banks and other bodies) who need to adhere to ‘socially responsible’ standards and procurement agencies and those setting rules for procurement of public construction works in developing countries.

Many measures are needed to improve the Occupational Health & Safety of construction work in the developing world and these include appropriate legal frameworks, effective inspectorates, adequate training of workers and supervisors, restrictions on working hours and the wide availability of occupational health services. It is incumbent that procurement and contract documents have the potential to act as mechanisms to remind all parties to the construction contract of their obligations under law.

One of the major issues for construction practice is that projects are generally awarded on the basis of open competitive bids. However procurement procedures can often inhibit good health and safety practice. The awarding of construction contracts is generally conducted in competitive tendering processes, with tenders evaluated mainly on the basis of price. Naturally contractors endeavour to keep the costs down and labour is a major cost item. Hence the bid awarded is likely to be the one that does not provide the highest level of safety equipment, welfare facilities or the safest working environment. Hence a low price for the client is often at the expense of the health and safety of the workforce.

A number of different approaches have been proposed to improve construction health and safety in the developing world and these include:

  • pre-selection of occupational health and safety (OHS) project standards by the client prior to tendering;
  • pre-qualification of consultants and contractors ensuring at base levels of OHS track record and experience;
  • identification of risks at design stage to ensure health and safety during construction;
  • clear requirements in the tendering documents for occupational health and safety procedures;
  • improved tender evaluations that also address Occupational Health & Safety requirements, are based on quality considerations rather than price, or the removal of OHS from the primary bidding process;
  • improved standard conditions of contract that make both general and specific reference to occupational health and safety;
  • improved monitoring, reporting and post-project OHS evaluation.

While the situation in Qatar is being investigated further, there is no doubt that there will be major changes in health and safety procedures on site should these allegations prove to be correct. Football, the World Cup and FIFA have much to lose otherwise. The wider problem of OHS in construction across the developed world is another matter and there is still a long way to go. However changes are beginning to occur promoting quality based procurement practice in a number places around the globe and health and safety concerns are coming to the fore more often. The uglier side of the beautiful game that we may be seeing in Qatar will only hasten the process.