The construction industry seems to operate in permanent crisis mode. If contractors are not causing noise and dust pollution or creating obstacles to cars and pedestrians, they are exposing people to risks that are avoidable if only those responsible for managing projects take their onerous responsibilities more seriously.
The catastrophic collapse of a residential building adjacent to a construction site in Mellieħa and a near miss when the wall of a Guardamangia residence caved in a few days later were not freak accidents. Since humans first started construction, structures have failed. However, today the art and science of building safely are well-honed. Luck should never be an element in construction projects.
Luck was once again on the victims’ side in the most recent case of construction failure, in that the worst outcome – fatalities – was avoided. However, trusting in fortune is a fool’s alternative to the professional management of projects inherently riddled with risks. Many concerned people have every right to demand explanations for why the number of collapses of apartments near new building sites seems to be on the increase.
They will not be satisfied by building contractors claiming they do not know what caused the collapse of a property adjacent to their construction site. Neither by professional bodies representing developers, civil engineers or other trades insisting that the industry needs to get its act together by observing professional standards of proper project management and workmanship. People living next to construction sites do not feel safer simply because the Prime Minister expresses “concern” and calls an urgent meeting of those involved in building projects.
While investigations that led to incidents are inevitable, the sudden sense of urgency now being felt must translate not only into new laws but strict enforcement of those laws. People’s lives depend on it.
The government’s reaction to the latest incident of a construction failure that narrowly missed causing fatalities was to declare that “professionals involved in the sector have to bear responsibility”. This argument would have been credible had the government shown that it consistently oversees the process of enforcement of strict building regulations, especially at a time when the industry is experiencing a boom.
It is always the government’sresponsibility to update and enforce building standards to minimise the risks that ordinary people are exposed to. The proposed measures aimed at making building projects safer for neighbours will only be as effective as the political will to ensure their protection.
Whatever action is taken now can never be backdated to the many incidents of the past. Ask anyone who has had problems with a neighbour demolishing a house and re-erecting a block of flats – too often have they ended up suffering in silence as the powers that be fail to take enforcement action.
Contractors have been doing as they please for far too long, sometimes even ignoring official orders to halt illegal works. Why is it so difficult for the police to stop certain illegalities?
Self-regulation has certainly not worked. Poor project management is the most common cause of contractor default. This could be due to a lack of skilled staff and upper management, incompetent engineering input, or a mindset to maximise profits knowing that enforcement is lax.
Incompetent leadership is another cause for construction project failures. Poor leadership is characterised by overconfidence by contractors, hyper-optimism and a weak ability to discern threats and challenges as they arise in a project.
Many of the issues which could ultimately result in construction failure can be traced back to poor planning, including the lack of a good business plan, a proper risk assessment and management process, and ineffective communication with neighbours living next to building sites.
None of these weaknesses is unavoidable. Fear of tough sanctions against those who even unknowingly put people’s lives at risk is possibly the most effective way to avoid a repeat of the incidents that have needlessly put so many lives at risk over the past few days. Platitudes will not resolve this crisis. The responsibility to enforce strict safety regulations lies with the government.
The Prime Minister once proclaimed himself against long-term planning, which is precisely what has been needed all along. Long-term vision not short-sighted gains, no matter how massive.
Shall we keep feeding the hungry wolf?
This is a Times of Malta print editorial