Were safety measures followed in building demolition?

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) is shocked at the circumstances surrounding the Jaya Supermarket tragedy. It is incomprehensible that hazardous demolition work which is normally executed after careful planning could go awry and result in the entrapment and death of 7 foreign workers.

According to a media report, Deputy Housing and Local Government Minister Lajim Ukin said initial investigations indicated that the structure might have collapsed due to overloading on the upper level of the building with heavy machinery neing used in the demolition work.

This is not surprising as eyewitnesses claimed to have seen six cranes perched on top of the building toppling down to ground level. A Petaling Jaya City Council official said the incident was unfortunate for the seven workers as the demolition of the building was supposed to have taken place only after 6 pm. A spokesman of the demolition company also said that the structure of that part of the four-storey building which collapsed was unbonded, while the undamaged part was bonded.

Taking into consideration that actual demolition work reportedly had yet to start, it is quite apparent that the unbonded section of the building was made to bear the load of heavy machinery which the section was unable to cope with. CAP questions how heavy machinery was allowed to be installed at these sections without the load bearing capacity of the section first studied, if at all. Did the engineer and the safety officer in charge of operations at that time fulfill their professional requirements? Were they aware that there were altogether more than 80 workers at various locations at the site who were potentially at high risk to life and limb? Were all safety precautions taken beforehand to ensure that they would not be affected in any way by the weight of those six cranes perched on unsteady platforms? Was the weight of the heavy machinery specified after responsible checking of the load and determined to be safe in line with Department of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) guidelines?

It is the employers or contractors duty to assess workplace risks and put in preventive measures to eliminate hazards at the workplace, especially at a high risk location such as this demolition site. Were any of these measures undertaken? And if so, were they in accordance to the DOSH guidelines? Did the person responsible for the cranes carry out a complete inspection and testing of the cranes and their mounting points for stability before operations, as per DOSH guidelines? Were all DOSH guidelines pertaining to crane operation safety and load bearing capacities of the mounting points enforced by the main contractor? Indeed, for a tragedy of this magnitude to occur, CAP questions if the contractors even allowed DOSH to be involved in their operations at all.

Too many foreign workers’ lives have been sacrificed in this country because contractors failed to comply with DOSH safety regulations. Even if their families are compensated, it will never bring their loved ones back. Have the lives of these people who have helped to develop our country become worthless to us?

DOSH regulations for safe and responsible crane and construction operations as specified in its “Guidelines for Public Safety and Health at Construction Sites” are minimal, unambiguous and well defined. There is no reason or excuse by any agency or party involved in crane or construction operations to be ignorant or negligent in complying with these life saving guidelines.

The question of responsibility and accountability also arises. Last year, the Minister for Human Resources, Datuk Dr S Subramaniam assured us that ‘professionals’ will be made responsible for workplace safety. He said, “If a crane accident occurs at a construction site, we want the engineers involved in ensuring the crane’s safety to be answerable.” He added that this was among the measures taken to ensure organisations implement well-defined safety and health practices for their workers and that these ‘professionals’ should ensure a safety mechanism is in place.

CAP concurs with the Ministers call for responsibility in ensuring the implementation of safety and health mechanisms at construction sites and accountability in dealing with construction site accidents by the “professionals” concerned. With the onus put by the Human Resources Ministry on main contractors to take responsibility for worksite safety, CAP urges the responsible parties to be accountable to the relevant authorities by revealing to them details of the Jaya Supermarket tragedy.

CAP also questions if DOSH has been actively involved in the implementation and enforcement of safety procedures and mechanisms at this highly hazardous work site and if DOSH has documentation of their monitoring. CAP calls for the team of forensic engineers with DOSH to reveal the findings of their investigations into the accident and in the process, play a central role in establishing a benchmark for the conformance to their Guidelines by all in the construction industry of Malaysia.

Press Statement, 30 May 2009