Verbal signaling is a global problem that is most apparent in the United Arab Emirates, one of the busiest construction markets in the world.

Michael Goodman/ENR
Accidents are common in the UAE, where thousands of cranes are at work.

The booming country, which is roughly the size of Maine, is home to a large percentage of the world's cranes. In Dubai alone, manufacturers estimate 1,800 to 2,000 tower cranes are taking part in hundreds of large-scale developments there. Local reports place Dubai's cranes at 15 to 25% of the global population. Suppliers think it is more like 1 to 2%.

The crane work is staggeringly busy and the labor force has a big language challenge. A 2003 study by two students at Ohio State University shows that Abu Dhabi, the capital city, and Dubai employ 71% of UAE's labor. But few locals want to work in construction, so most laborers are imported from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Crane accidents stemming from language barriers and poor maintenance are common. Many construction firms wish to improve safety but "do not know where to begin," the study says.

Little government regulation is placed on safety, and many companies do not report accidents as required by law. One equipment supplier estimates that the cost of a life is about $30,000—enough "blood money" to satisfy a family when a worker dies. Productivity also is a problem because many operators lack skills. "You can have a Ferrari with very big performance, but if you're not Michael Schumacher, you don't know how to drive it," says Wolfgang Reim, director of tower crane sales for Germany's Liebherr-Export AG.

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  • In the Middle East, it is left up to owners and contractors to protect workers. Nico van Dyk, equipment manager for Dubai-based Al Jaber Engineering & Contracting LLC (ALEC), says his firm is tough on safety. It starts operators at $817 per month, with free room, board and medical benefits. Most UAE workers earn between $108 and $217 per month.

    ALEC also places an emphasis on standard communication and only hires operators that have at least five years of experience. It has them tested by a third party to be sure. The firm tries to pair operators and riggers of the same nationality and language. "This is very expensive equipment," says van Dyk. Making a match is difficult, though, because "we have got 220 different languages in the UAE."