Building Collapsed –The Role of Government beyond Condolences by Kayode Fowode

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On Wednesday March 13, 2019, Lagosians witnessed yet another building collapsed at Ita-Faji in Lagos Island. According to the Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Dr Jide Idris, 20 corpses were recovered and taken to the mortuary from the site of the catastrophic incident while 45 survivors are undergoing treatment at some government health facilities. Unfortunately, history has shown that incidents like this usually result into fatalities, injuries and pains, litigations and burden on government medical facilities amongst other losses.

I have said it before that building construction is a high-risk activity that must be efficiently controlled by building owners and effectively regulated by regulatory agencies. Above statement was the first paragraph in my article titled, “Averting building collapse in Lagos State”, published in the Punch Newspaper of April 12, 2016. I reiterated this in another publication (Blog post) titled, “Church building collapse, a clarion call for duty holders” on December 22, 2016. Today, the risks still remain the same and until we identify the root causes and take corrective actions, Nigerians may likely continue to experience the same misfortune.

Considering the recent incident, it might be worthwhile to look at some of the causes of building collapse. From my personal experience and through investigations and media reports, the causes of building collapse in the country are as a result of one or a combination of the following: inadequate site preparation including absence of proper soil investigation; defective design and construction; lack of building or planning permits; use of substandard materials; corruption; non-adherence to approved building plans; engagement of inexperienced personnel, developers and contractors; lack of proper supervision, inspection and monitoring of construction works; illegal conversion, alteration, and additions to existing structures; undue interference of client on building works; foundation failures; natural occurrence; insufficient construction health and safety legislation; insufficient regulatory officers and non-enforcement of extant notices etc.

Regrettably, government of all level (federal, state and local) have failed to take appropriate holistic actions to address the root causes of these incidents and thus, prevent recurrence. Government must understand that actions required of them are beyond sending condolences and paying for medical bills of victims.

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We are tired of seeing innocent Nigerians killed in rubbles of collapsed buildings. How many Nigerians do we expect to die from building collapse before necessary actions are taken to reduce such incidents? What specific Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Law is directed towards enhancing safety in construction and buildings? What measures have been put in place to review and act upon the various comments, articles and professional advice that were offered after previous similar incidents? Do we have sufficient inspectors from the regulatory agencies to oversee number of building activities going on day and night? Do we have efficient system to track substandard buildings, engagement of incompetent building contractors and developers? And more importantly, are enforcement actions proactively implemented or only applied after a catastrophic incident? Many questions can be asked but it is obvious we are yet to learn from past building collapses.

The time to act is now if we must prevent death from building collapse. All duty holders including governments must take leadership role to address these concerns. Firstly, building owners must be stopped from engaging developers or contractors that have not been assessed and confirmed by the regulatory agencies to have the appropriate competent resources and positive safety record to guarantee safe construction or building. Hence, an approved list of competent developers who have been assessed and verified to deliver the highest level of professional services should be maintained in form of a register and made available to the public who may require their service.

Also, wherever and whenever a building is identified for non-conformity to appropriate laws and marked for removal, immediate legal actions must be taken so as not to expose occupants and others to danger. No building confirmed by a competent and authorised body as distressed should be left undemolished irrespective of the owner’s political affiliation or circle of influence. No life is worthless nor can be replaced, so we must all do the needful.

Furthermore, it is illegal to commence construction works without approved drawings from appropriate authorities. In a situation where such occur or where a building is illegally converted, altered, and added to existing structures without necessary approval, then the approving authorities must act swiftly and accordingly.

Managing safety is a joint responsibility. As such, preventing building collapse cannot be tackled by the government alone. It is a collective responsibility. This is why the Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON) should be vigilant to ensure that locally produced and imported building materials conform to standard requirements.

The National Assembly should speedily pass the bill on Construction Health and Safety similar to Construction Design and Management (CDM) Regulations 2015 (enacted in UK). The above bill emphasises and places duties on all duty holders on construction safety. Regulations thereof should identify all duty holders within the industry and clearly stipulates individual legal duties along the supply chain.

In addition, early intervention by regulatory officers is key to preventing building collapse. Safety begins with pre-planning, therefore the regulatory officers (RO) must check that developers or contractors understand the construction methods at the pre-planning stage and how the entire procurement process shall be managed in order to ascertain the quality of building materials and eliminate the risks of substandard materials.

The RO must ensure that controls to mitigate any foreseeable risks are integrated into the building design and the client or principal designer has taken all reasonable measures to eliminate or control foreseeable risks that may arise during construction, maintenance and use of the building. This should be one of the major criteria for issuing Building Permit.

Unfortunately, corruption has consistently remained a threat to the construction industry. Every competent engineer knows that adequate feasibility studies, soil and site investigation, adherence to engineering specifications, accurate data from professionals, and use of standard materials forms the basis for good design and construction. It is therefore pertinent that officers of the approving authority read through drawings to detect defects and avoid engaging in corrupt practices of granting illegal approvals. The RO must also ensure that all building plans tendered for approval complies with Nigeria’s new Building Code, Regulations and local bye-laws.

Lastly, as mentioned in my previous article, safety is not simply common sense. The regulators must begin a country-wide campaign on construction and building safety in order to educate the public on the risks associated with living in distressed buildings and the hazards posed by construction activities together with other associated risks that might arise from the use of substandard materials.

The public must be sensitised on the applicable regulations, hazards identification, and how to work safely including how to deal with emergencies. All these would help improve hazard spotting and reporting amongst the populace. Thus, where a worker has recognised a substandard material or equipment to be used on the project, that has potential to cause collapse of the building during or after construction, the worker as a result of his training would be able to raise alarm and/or report such to a nominated person within the project team who will then take appropriate action.

Engr. Kayode V. Fowode CFIOSH, FNISafetyE is a Chartered Fellow Health and Safety Practitioner and Managing Consultant at Kevron Consulting Limited / National Coordinator, IOSH Nigeria Network Group. He can be reached via email at  k.fowode@kevronconsultingltd.com

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1 COMMENT

  1. There are so many professionals engaged in the built-industry who affect the building in different ways. Most prominent amongst these are the Geotechnic Engineers who defines the right technology for the available soil; Structural/Civil Engineers who defines the load distribution and joint resolution; Mechanical&Materials Engineers defines the forces transmission, materials integrity, plumbing, conduits, building services, and fastening; and Electrical&Electronics Engineers handles power distribution. These activities solely determines if a building will stand or not. Added to these are the Holistics/Systems Engineers who handle coordination.
    It is then obvious that Engineers, to a large extent, determines whether a building or anyother technology would fail or not. As much as there are so many hands in the pot, we know where to point, why shifting blames unnecessarily?
    Architects will only show you a drawing of how your available space and intended use determines the look of your building. Surveyors will define the boundaries of your building. GITs defines the location of your site. QS estimates the amount of materials needed and their individual as well as total costs. Builders remain on site to ensure all professional specifications are implemented as stated. All these roles can be overlooked or bypassed or carried-on as extra burden by Ingeniers but the role of Engineers cannot be compromised without courting problems.
    The day Engineers (ie Ingeniers and their professional subordinates) are defined to be solely responsible for this and other technology-related accidents, such occurrences would rarely happen. This is the final solution.

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