Construction workers face death on a regular basis

2014-02-24 00:00

IN South Africa, two workers die each week on construction sites and, of the 6 000 deaths that occur annually in the workplace worldwide, 60% are construction related.

These were some of the figures detailed on Friday by attorney Richard Hoal at a breakfast talk at the Durban Country Club titled, “Construction Disasters and Mitigating Risk”. Hoal is representing the design engineers in the inquiry into the collapse of the Tongaat Mall.

Commenting on the reason for a record turn-out, Vanessa Blevins, chairperson of the South African Council of Shopping Centres who hosted the event, cited the collapse of the Tongaat Mall last October in which two people died. “It was a shock to developers in the industry,” she said.

Since then there has been a mall collapse in Riga, Latvia, in which over 50 people died and the collapse of a stadium under construction for the soccer world cup in Sao Paolo, Brazil, in which two workers died.

According to Hoal, it has been estimated that there will be 4 000 deaths among workers — mainly migrant labourers from other countries — before the opening of the 2022 Soccer World Cup in Qatar. Already 400 have died.

Hoal pointed out that there had been no construction-related fatalities in London prior to their hosting of the 2012 Olympics where health and safety regulations had been adhered to.

Regarding current construction for the World Cup in Brazil, Hoal said they are “building under extreme pressure” and this created a climate where “health and safety issues get compromised”.

Typically 80% of construction failures are due to engineering error and 20% due to design error, Hoal said. Most construction failures are due to a combination of factors, including bad design, foundation failure and over-loading, as well as poor construction techniques and the use of sub-standard materials.

In South Africa, construction is regulated under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Hoal emphasised that the buck stops with the owner and that the owner should stop the contractor from proceeding if matters are “not in accordance” with the safety plans that the owner is expected to approve and monitor during construction.

Hoal said owners can’t stand back and blame the contractor and the engineer when things go wrong.

The Witness, reporting from the commission of inquiry into the Tongaat Mall collapse, has previously detailed how weak concrete was used; a crucial site diary was missing; the foreman had never seen a construction programme; and the contractor completely ignored a high court order demanding construction be stopped. In addition, health and safety audits had not been carried out in the four months preceding the collapse and there was a lack of steel bars in the reinforcement beams.

Hoal said regular site supervision was required and it was vital that various professional teams on a construction site were responsible for managing the process. Prior to construction, Hoal said there needed to be a “careful design review” and that it was necessary to “be alive to the tension between economic and safe design” and that if there was an emphasis on the economics, safety would lose out.

During construction, shopping centres tended to be in a state of “dynamic design”, said Hoal, unlike, for example, a block of flats, and that the design could change several times over issues of access points and demands by tenants.

In addition, contractors are always working with cost factors. “There is always the temptation for contractors to use the most cost-effective methods — that’s not always the safest.”

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