Following the recent tragedy at the Mawazine festival in Morocco, where eleven people were killed by a stampeding crowd, event safety practices in the MENA region have come ‘under the microscope’. Patrick Elligett speaks to some of the local and European event industry’s leading safety experts, to determine where the region ranks globally in the adoption of safe practices.
The Middle East’s event industry is undeniably growing in terms of global significance.
World-renowned artists are now frequently scheduling tour stops in the region, corporate and private events have successfully weathered the economic storm, and the sporting sector has been bolstered by the Dubai Sports City development, the addition of Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit to the Formula One racing calendar in 2009, and the continued success of the Bahrain Grand Prix.
There is little doubt that in many respects, the local events sector is world-class. However, one area where the region’s events industry is lacking, according to some experts, is safety.
So do local safety practices measure up to global standards?
“The short answer is no,” says Tim Roberts of UK-based Event Safety Shop, who also works as an event safety advisor for event promoter Flash in the UAE.
“My perception, as someone who operates predominantly in Europe, is that I am very much accustomed to being told what to do by government authorities in the way that I work,” he explains. “In the Middle East, there seems to be a bit of a vacuum in terms of legislation and formal guidance on how safe practices should be implemented.
“Adopting safe practices doesn’t necessarily require any primary legislation. Certainly, in my experience with Flash, I have found that there is a personal, moral, and financial compulsion to get safety right, because nobody wants a mishap occurring during their show.”
It has been suggested that technological improvements and widespread awareness has made the improvement of safe practices in the event industry a redundant issue in this day and age. However in reality, this is far from the truth.
In the US, which is considered one of the most advanced event markets in the world, 100 people were killed and 200 more were injured in a fire at a Rhode Island nightclub, when foam used to soundproof the venue ignited during an on-stage pyrotechnics display.
The blaze reportedly led to the largest civil torts case in Rhode Island’s history.
In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the Hajj pilgrimage has provided constant challenges for event managers and government organisers attempting to implement effective crowd management strategies to protect the 2 million people who descend on the Holy City annually.
Following a series of incidents on Mecca’s Jamarat bridge, which have claimed the lives of thousands of pilgrims in recent years, Saudi authorities took the decision to redevelop the location to alleviate pedestrian traffic and prevent future incidents.
“These tragedies have resulted in a complete rethink of the way pilgrims are brought to the Hajj. The way they gain access and how they are educated on what they must do in order to participate safely have been improved,” says Roberts.
“Even in a situation where some might think it’s unavoidable, the Saudi Arabian Government has recognised that this is not the case, and has accepted its responsibility to plan the Hajj carefully.
“In the Moroccan example, it is important to note that although a wall collapsed, it was not a structural issue, it was a crowd management issue.
“You need to plan carefully from the outset of any show to ensure you don’t get uncontrolled movements or potentially hazardous dynamics from within the crowd.”
In the Middle East, a regionally appropriate set of universal rules and regulations for crowd management at events is still yet to be developed.
The same can be said for occupational health and safety (OHS) regulations for event production workers, who face dangers associated with fire, working at heights, high voltage electricity systems, heavy machinery and overexposure to the often harsh elements in the Middle East.
Many production companies, event organisers, venues and equipment suppliers have adopted and adapted their own original rules and regulations, which are often based on the safety standards of more established event markets, such as Britain, Germany and Australia. This is due, in part, to the high concentration of expatriate workers in the sector.
Occupational health and safety for event production teams and visitor/venue safety differs from country to country, due to the unique variety of circumstances and challenges facing the industry in various regional markets.
Dave Emery, operations director at Gearhouse Staging Connections in Dubai, says in addition to maintaining its own safety standards, his company has focused on convincing local venues to adopt and enforce stringent OHS policies.
“We decided to really push safety issues from the outset, not only for the benefit of our own people, but for the benefit of the market as a whole,” he says.
“The company passed on its own policies to some of the well-used venues and they have since adopted many of these regulations, such as ensuring crews carry first aid kits, having people properly trained to work at height and having the correct safety equipment on-hand.
“I think some suppliers in town are beginning to dislike us, because we go into these venues and push them to adopt our policies,” claims Emery. “Some companies find it too inconvenient to provide staff with the correct training or to ensure the lifting gear is certified annually.
“Obviously, some universal legislation from the UAE government and others would be great, but it would have to go through some sort of industry body or committee to make sure it’s appropriate for the event sector.”
Safety guide author and production specialist Harald Scherer says that although having venues enforce their own regulations is a good start, inconsistency between these and broader industry guidelines policies can serve to create unnecessary issues for production teams.
“It can be dangerous if you have to obey certain rules in one place and then not in another,” Scherer argues. “But I have noticed that this is a trend in the Middle East... due to the lack of appropriate universal OHS standards.
“I would recommend the formation of a small group of industry experts with adequate combined experience, to devise a regionally specific set of safety regulations,” he says.
“A selection of the big venue operators and equipment suppliers would need to be included. They could then put together a fundamental event safety document, appropriate to the region,” suggests Scherer.
“Once this phase is complete, governments should be included in the process of developing safety recommendations further, and bringing them to life.”
He warns however, that government involvement should be metered, to prevent the occurrence of two potentially detrimental contributions: delaying progress on agreements and the adoption of inappropriate regulations for the events industry.
“In Germany, where I am based, regulations have been heavily influenced by the construction site laws.
“This is partly due to the fact that the government department here which handles building codes and construction regulations is also in charge of event safety. Applying regulations from the construction sector to the events industry is completely unsuitable, because the two industries are different in almost every way,” he claims.
While in principle, there would be few in the industry who would disagree with attempts to raise safety standards, in practice, the high cost of taking up these measures can lead companies to take unsafe shortcuts, with, in some cases, little to no fear of reprisal.
Gearhouse Staging Connections, with the help of a local sponsor, claims to spend considerably more than US $100,000 annually on equipment checks, staff training and other safety measures. For smaller companies, large investments in safety are sometimes viewed as unnecessary or unviable expenditures.
While recent tragedies at large-scale events have sparked pleas for better safety practices in the MENA region, many professionals are skeptical about progress being made until financial incentives, stricter enforceable deterrents, and a unified, governing industry body are in place.
Furthermore, skeptics also suggest that the introduction of potentially costly regulations might be enough to destroy a portion of the industry’s smaller event companies, which are already struggling to stay afloat.
Gearhouse’s Dave Emery offers recommendations on the proper use of safety harnesses.
“A few years back, some scaffolders here in the Middle East weren’t wearing proper harnesses; they were wearing waist belts with a length of rope attached. If you fall in the wrong position while you’re in one of those, there’s a good chance you will break your back.
“Nowadays, we are seeing people wearing proper full body harnesses and fall arrester lanyards, which slow you down while you fall to avoid that sudden jolt.
“In our industry, it’s very trendy for people to work in what are called “nappy harnesses” which are proper climbing harnesses.
“While they look more attractive, they aren’t as safe as a full body harness. If you fall incorrectly, you can still suffer serious damage.”
BURNING THE MIDNIGHT OIL
Fire safety firm Spectrum International holds on-site training courses in fire safety for event production specialists working in the UAE.
Priced at $68 per person, the courses are operated by SAM Fire LLC, a division of Spectrum International.
At the conclusion of the course, trainees should be able to demonstrate their understanding of the following:
1. The cause of fire.
2. How fire spreads.
3. Actions which can be taken to prevent or control it.
4. The correct selection and use of fire extinguisher relevant to the risk involved.
Fire type 1 – Spill fire (fuel oil, petrol, kerosene, paint etc).
Fire type 2 – Small container fire (paper bin, dustbin etc).
Fire type 3 – Electrical fire (fuse box, wall plug, distribution box etc)
A certificate, issued by SAM, will be presented to all delegates who show that they have satisfactorily completed the course.
** Source: spectrumfire.com
The International Powered Access Federation (IPAF) promotes the safe and effective use of potentially hazardous electrical systems worldwide. Established in 1983, IPAF is a not-for-profit members’ organisation that represents the interests of manufacturers, distributors, users, and rental and training companies.
More than 80,000 hazardous equipment operators are trained each year through a worldwide network of over 330 training centres.
Successful trainees are awarded the PAL (Powered Access Licence) card, the most widely held and recognised proof of training for platform operators.
IPAF members enjoy access to advisory, information, insurance and translation services and have the chance to influence legislation and regulations that govern platform use.
** Source: www.ipaf.org