We have experienced a sudden frenzy over safety in Lebanon in the last couple weeks triggered by the sad building collapse in Achrafieh. This aberration initiated again the endemic worries over the infamous Jal Al-Dib flyover bridge, the extensive media coverage, and the activism of some local authorities and parliamentary committees who originated the discussions on how they can improve the general public safety.
The two sites mentioned highlight the lack of proper routine maintenance regimes, whether the subject is a private or public property. Ultimately, any owner should be responsible for their asset. In the private case of Achrafieh, it can take another complex dimension upon considering the old tenancy law, but I think the landlord is still responsible for putting other people’s lives at risk. He/she didn’t seem to have taken any serious steps to warn about or mitigate any obvious risks. Another typical ‘private’ safety issue is the frequent fires we see in businesses like factories or malls. Every now and then we get fire to break in these places with the reason always being ‘electric shock’ (even if the owner is minister). As if these shocks do happen if everything was maintained in order.
Jal Al-dib case is sample of the bigger problem Lebanon faces in managing its public assets. The government (or its executive agencies) have no plans in place for any routine maintenance, but rather reactionary as happened last month. Routine maintenance will comprise of employing competent contractors and consultants to periodically inspect all assets depending on its class (underpass, bridge, retaining walls, roads etc) and maintain them, or plan and procure renewal works as required.
Not only does the government not maintain its structures, but it fails in implementing the law and its duty of care towards its citizens, when the impact is coming from a private asset construction project. Construction projects, which could have an adverse impact on the nearby structures, should go through rigorous approval procedures, not only for their permanent designs but for their temporary designs i.e. works needed only for the duration of the construction period. The slightest unplanned activities like having an excavator on a top of a building, a worker hanging in air with no fall protection or a site crane collapsing due to poor ground conditions should not be allowed to happen.
Occupational safety laws in Lebanon are vague and generic. They don’t get into a detailed level which forces individuals and employers to comply with (and protect their employees). This ultimately should increase the general safety awareness, and improve its record. If these laws were comprehensive, we wouldn’t need to debate for example whose responsibility is it If a person had an accident while undertaking their work duties. Is it the person’s fault that he/she was careless, or was it the employer’s fault for not having any proper safety systems in place? Personally, I think the employer (private or public) should take the necessary steps to make this person’s job safer. Every person is entitled to work safely, and this shouldn’t be a privilege. People shouldn’t be ‘forced’ to work unsafely just to make a living.
Let’s avoid the fluffy and probably bureaucratic words, and give an example. The side photo is taken from a project for drainage and underground services procured by the Lebanese Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), which is an executive government agency. Do you think we can do anything to improve the safety of the workers, and probably save everyone’s life including the road users?
Well, of course. At least, I can spot that:
- there is no side support for the excavation in case the earth collapsed there is no barriers to stop people from falling (indeed people can come and watch)
- there is no system to pump the water out, knowing its presence increases the risk of earth collapse and spreading contamination and disease
- there is no distinction between workers and non-workers
- there is no high visibility clothing for workers to reduce the risk of being hit by blind moving machinery
- there is no safe access of getting in and out the hole
The guys working in the hole could literally be ‘one rainy day’ away from death. You may think that I am being idealistic here, but the below photo proves that I am not, and this hole can be excavated safely. Sadly, this photo is not taken in Lebanon.
Obviously, the problem is not just the government absence with its regulations, but rather the collusion of the citizens with their absent government in undermining their own and public safety. This happens on a daily basis when we drive in every way that breaches common sense and the law, when put our children in our lap in the driving seat – not to mention the seat belt condition is unknown, when we build in unclaimed land or without planning permissions, when we borrow some tyres just for the car to pass the inspection test, and the list goes on. Did I mention shooting at your neighbors while fighting over a poster of your beloved political leader, or a parking bay?
There is a total absence of appropriate safety regulations, and lack of the existing law implementation, fueled by deficit of safety awareness on both the state and the public sides; we don’t respect human value, and we simply don’t have a culture of ‘health and safety’ which is precisely what we should be fostering. Safety is first!