It’s better to be safe than sorry

By : Sabria S. Jawhar

Traffic fatalities and homicides usually get the lion’s share of news coverage in Saudi media, but there are a less sensational, but equally horrific, number of deaths that are completely preventable. We have a system in place that abdicates its responsibility to its citizens paving conditions that lead to such tragedies.

According to the Directorate of Civil Defense, 7,056 cases of fire caused by electrical malfunctions in residential buildings led to 14 deaths and 393 people injured in the first half of this year. The financial losses were estimated at SR33.2 million.

In a separate report issued by the Saudi National Guard, it was estimated that 27 percent of all electrical fires were due to faulty installations. Overloading electrical outlets caused 23 percent of those fires and 10 percent were caused by bad quality electrical devices. Residential fires accounted for the largest percentage of blazes while automobiles represented 15 percent of all fires in the first half of 2014. Only 4 percent of reported fires occurred in agriculture or petroleum industries and educational facilities.

In addition, the Makkah region was the most affected by electrical fires, followed by Riyadh, Madinah, the Qassim region and Tabuk.

Anybody dying in these fires is a result of criminal negligence. Saudi municipalities do not have engineers to inspect the electrical installation of new residential buildings. There are no inspections to pass. No certification and apparently no standards. Instead, it’s up to the tenant or the building owner to hire his or her own engineer once construction is completed to determine whether electrical installation was performed properly and is safe.

My sister, who is building a new villa in Madinah, recently hired an engineer to perform an inspection. But like many new owners or tenants, she didn’t check his credentials to determine whether he was qualified to perform such inspections. With the Ministry of Labor continuing to uncover thousands of phony electrical engineering degrees possessed by expatriate and Saudi workers, the need for vigilance in building safety is essential.

To compound this problem of a laissez-faire approach to residential construction are tenants and owners who overload electrical outlets or purchase counterfeit electrical appliances.

Virtually every developed nation has a set of building standards that includes electrical installation. Many of these countries also monitor maintenance. Few developed countries permit the completion of construction or allow occupancy if construction fails to meet established standards.

While I was in England, for example, students at my university were not permitted to even plug in a kettle in the commons room unless the electrical system and outlets passed routine maintenance instructions. An inspector came to our apartment every six months to perform an inspection. In my Jeddah apartment not a single municipal employee ever visited to make an inspection.

Despite these safety issues, we do have it pretty good in Saudi Arabia. My electricity bill for one month in England covered an entire year in Saudi Arabia. However, we are not green conscious. We don’t turn off our lights when the room is not in use. We don’t unplug our appliances when we leave on vacation and we are not in the habit of checking heaters until they rust and crumble.

There are benefits to living in a country with minimal government interference in the way we go about making purchases and building homes and businesses. But safety is an important issue. If the municipality conducts a one-hour inspection of the electrical installation of a residential building before occupancy — and delays that occupancy until the building is certified as safe — and it saves the life of one person, then it’s worth the hassle of having the government part of the building process.





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