The death of a construction worker at one of Qatar's world cup stadiums in October has once again brought workplace health and safety into sharp focus, not only in Qatar but in the wider GCC, particularly in the construction sector. It is critical that employers are aware of the legislative and regulatory framework relating to workplace health and safety in their jurisdiction and sector. Despite an employer's best efforts, injuries/fatalities will inevitably occur in the workplace from time to time, particularly in more labour intensive sectors. It is therefore also important that employers know what to expect in the event such an injury/fatality occurs and are properly prepared for such events. This article explores the legislative and regulatory framework and what an employer can expect in the event that a workplace injury/fatality occurs.
What laws / regulations apply?
There is no standalone health and safety law in Qatar and the UAE which makes it extremely challenging for employers to identify their obligations towards employee health and safety. The key provisions governing workplace injury in Qatar are found in the Qatar Labour Law (Qatar Law No 14 of 2004, as amended). In addition to the provisions under the Qatar Labour Law, the Qatari Government established the National Committee of Occupational Health and Safety within the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labour and Social Affairs (Ministry of Labour) which is responsible for high-level policy as well as enforcement.
As with Qatar, health and safety law in the UAE is derived from various federal and local laws. The UAE Labour Law (Federal Law No. 8 of 1980, as amended) and the UAE Penal Code (Law No. 3 of 1987, as amended) are the primary sources of law on workplace injuries and an employer's duty of care. However, in an added layer of complexity, Emirate level and sector specific laws and regulations have also been enacted which are only applicable to specific industries and sectors (for example, the construction sector).
What can an employer expect where a workplace injury / fatality occurs?
a) An obligation to report the matter to the authorities
The Labour Laws of both Qatar and the UAE provide an exhaustive list of injuries and occupational diseases that constitute a reportable incident.
Should a reportable incident occur, the employer must file a report with the police and the Ministry of Labour (in Qatar) and the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation (in the UAE).
Depending on the location of the incident or an employer's sector, it may also be obliged to report the matter to the agency managing the location according to the pertinent regulations or to a regulatory body. For example, the Dubai Municipality Code of Construction Safety Practice requires contractors and subcontractors to submit an accident report within 72 hours of its occurrence.
b) A criminal investigation against an individual within the employer
In both jurisdictions, the police will conduct a formal investigation into the incident, which will generally involve interviewing any witnesses, taking statements from relevant management of the employer and, potentially, gathering documentation.
The police will often retain the passports of any employees who they consider may be responsible for the incident. This will depend on the facts but is likely to be the manager who was most closely related to the incident, such as the site manager, health and safety manager or one of the parties' general managers.
If the police determine that there is a criminal case to answer, the matter will be referred to the Public Prosecutor who will carry out further investigations.
The public prosecutor will generally refer the matter to the criminal court for judgment. In Qatar, the penalty for causing death to another by failing to observe the ethics of his profession or trade is a maximum of six years' imprisonment and/or a fine of up to QAR20,000; causing injury is a maximum of one year's imprisonment and/or a fine of up to QAR2,000. In both instances, if the victim or his or her heirs forgive the perpetrator the penalities shall be material reduced. In the UAE, the penalty for causing death or injury to another by failing to observe the ethics of his profession or trade is at least one year's imprisonment and a fine.
A prosecution is often coupled with an award of Diya (blood money) or Arsh (injury money). This can be paid by the individual or by the employer.
c) An obligation to pay the employee's medical expenses and salary
In relation to workplace injuries, an employer is required under Qatar and UAE law to pay for the employee's medical treatment in a local hospital until they recover or are found to be disabled.
Where the injury prevents the employee from carrying out their duties, the employer may be required to pay the employee in full or in part, depending on the duration of the absence.
d) An obligation to pay compensation to the employee
Under the respective labour laws of Qatar and the UAE, employers may be obliged to pay employees a compensatory payment. Unlike Diya or Arsh money, compensation under the labour laws of Qatar or the UAE is not fault based.
In the UAE, such compensation is capped at AED 35,000 (for total loss of sight of both eyes, for example) and decreases on a sliding scale depending on the nature and severity of the incident (for example, loss of one canine tooth attracts 2% of the maximum compensation); in Qatar the percentage scale is calculated on the basis of Diya, which is currently capped at QAR200,000.
e) An obligation to pay fines to the relevant ministry
If it is found that failings in the health and safety practices of an employer resulted in workplace injuries, the employer could be liable to face penalties issued by their respective labour ministries.
For example, the Qatar Ministry of Labour may file a claim against a Qatari employer and the Labour Court may then impose a fine; the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation in the UAE may impose a penalty of AED 10,000 per case for a failure to comply with health and safety standards. There are also additional penalties for breaches of specific health and safety rules (such as the rules relating to the summertime working ban in the UAE), respectively.
f) A civil complaint
Whilst a criminal complaint could only be brought against an individual and not an employer itself, a civil complaint may be brought against the employer. Such a claim will often follow a successful criminal complaint and be brought under the vicarious liability provisions under the Civil Law.
What should employers do to mitigate the risk of workplace injuries / fatalities?
Whilst this list is by no means exhaustive, set out below are some ways in which employers can mitigate the risk of workplace injuries/fatalities to the extent possible:
- Policies, procedures, posters – it is not sufficient to simply have a policy or display posters regarding health and safety; consideration must also be given to how this will be communicated to employees, whether this is in the correct language and format given the nationality and literacy levels of employees and who will manage and update the policies, procedures and posters as and when required.
- Training – employees should be regularly trained on health and safety issues. Such training should be tailored to the relevant employee's role and responsibilities and should be clearly documented so that, in the event of a dispute, the employer can evidence that such training took place.
- Management buy in and culture – the importance of health and safety should be stressed from the top down. This message often gets diluted in high pressure, time sensitive environments. It must be clear that health and safety is a key focus for the company and that any breaches of applicable health and safety rules will be taken very seriously.
- Emergency response procedure – prompt action is key in the event of a workplace injury or fatality. It is important that key staff which appropriate signing authority are clear on the emergency response procedure to be followed (for example, who should the incident be reported to? Who should liaise with the authorities?) in the event such an incident occurs.
Health and safety is becoming an increasingly topical issue in the Qatar and the UAE as employers are becoming ever more aware of both the legal and reputational consequences of workplace injuries and fatalities.
With the increased media focus on Qatar in the lead up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the UAE in the lead up to Expo 2020, we may even see further legislative and/or policy developments in this area in the coming year.