Construction safety

The collapse of the under-construction Excellency Reception Hall in Wellawatte should be an eye-opener to the construction industry, local bodies and lawmakers. One person was found dead by rescue teams and 27 construction workers were injured in the collapse. Several workers are reported missing, believed to be trapped under the rubble. Rescue efforts by the Armed Forces are underway as we write.

According to the Police, four floors of the building located behind the Savoy Cinema, had initially collapsed with the ground floor threatening to follow. Although police are yet to find the reason for the collapse of the building, this is not the first time that such an incident has occurred in Sri Lanka or the region. One of the most tragic building collapses in recent times occurred in Bangladesh exactly four years ago, when the eight story Rana Plaza building in Dhaka caved in, killing 1,130 people. Miraculously, more than 2,500 people were rescued.

Although one cannot compare the Excellency and Rana incidents in terms of scale, most of the lessons could be identical in both instances. The buildings' owners ignored warnings to avoid using the building after cracks had appeared the day before. Garment workers were ordered to return the following day, and the building collapsed during the morning rush-hour. The head of the Bangladesh Fire Service, Ali Ahmed Khan, said that the upper four floors had been built without a permit. Rana Plaza's architect, Massood Reza, said the building was planned for shops and offices – but not factories.

Once the Excellency rescue efforts are over, a comprehensive investigation into the incident should follow. The Police should call in the experts for the structural and architectural side of the investigation – the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO) which has expert personnel and the right equipment. No stone should be left unturned in this probe.

There are already unverified initial reports that builders had violated some terms of the planning permission. If this is true, the builders had committed an inexcusable offence. The Police should get to the bottom of this and question the owner, architect and the contractor without delay to ascertain whether any omissions on their part led to the tragedy.

Colombo is experiencing a construction boom with a large number of high-rises coming up throughout the city. Developers try to expedite the construction due to the competitive nature of the various businesses they engage in (a six-month delay in construction can mean 5-6 lost weddings for a new reception hall). But this could have dangerous consequences.

In the light of this incident, the NBRO along with the Construction Industry Development Authority (CIDA) should re-check all building sites to ascertain whether the contractors had complied with all rules and regulations. Local authorities which actually approve the plans must also get involved in this exercise.

It is essential that potential building owners hand over their construction projects only to CIDA-approved contractors. There is very little awareness on this issue among the public and prospective building owners who usually give their work to unknown companies. The authorities should publish a list of approved construction companies and contractors with their ICTAD grades so that the public can choose them with confidence. Although this is available on the website, a newspaper advertisement is a far better option.

In most other countries, houses and buildings cannot be built by rag-tag bands of non-professionals who sometimes do not follow sound professional advice. The police must probe whether an approved contractor was in charge and whether the building owners had made any unauthorized alternations to the original plans. Some have raised the question whether the ongoing inclement weather affected the structural integrity of the building. This factor too should be taken into account in the probe.

The Police must also examine whether the Excellency workers had been provided with helmets, safety harnesses, non-slip footwear and other construction industry safety gear which they are supposed to wear at all times at the site. Even a one-foot fall can be dangerous in a construction site. A helmet can be a saviour – we know that already from motorcycle accidents, but a construction site is no different.

In line with our “closing the stable door after the horse has bolted” mentality, we realise the importance of safety gear only when an incident takes place. Safety at Work must be a priority for all workers, not just construction workers, but in their case it is much more important.

It is also time for our construction industry to look for safer alternatives to some of the materials used for construction. Asbestos is being phased out and wood is emerging as a serious contender for constructing whole buildings. The Trummens Strand residential project in Växjö, Sweden is the foremost example for a whole wooden building. New fire-resistant wood-based construction materials have the potential to replace the steel and concrete commonly used today. Graphene, the thinnest and strongest new material is also entering the mainstream construction industry. These and other new materials will ensure higher levels of safety both during and after construction, which is every builder’s aim. 


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Swoping Ravi Karunanayake - A recognised Accountant for Mangala amounts to jumping from the Frying Pan to the Fire. Where is the economy going? People view this as an attempt to mask the financial frauds of the last two years.

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