Construction industry incidents always attract high public interest and media coverage, for example the recent M1 Grayston Bridge collapse, the Ingula lift failure and the Tongaat Mall collapse, especially when these incidents result in injuries and fatalities. The construction industry remains a focal point for the Department of Labour’s (DOL) Chief Inspector and Inspectorate due to recurring incidents, especially excavation collapses and collapsing structures. The Chief Inspector in recent years published the specific Construction Regulations to provide greater guidance to the industry about the minimum requirements for construction safety.
Planning construction work – risk assessment
The importance of a comprehensive risk assessment and mitigation plan, as prescribed in Construction Regulation 9, is paramount for identifying and understanding the risks of the construction activities, and ensuring that these activities are executed according to complete procedures/instructions. The reasonable practicability of the risk assessment is based on the best knowledge available at the time by appointed persons having the sufficient knowledge, training and experience. The implementation of the risk assessment plan provides assurance that the work procedures are relevant and effective.
Who is responsible?
No construction activity can be executed without people understanding their roles and functions within the entire construction community. Although broadly defined under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Construction Regulations have defined appointed roles required and prescribed operational responsibilities. These include the roles of the:
- Client – issues the health and safety specification, obtains permit
- Designer – espouses the safety requirements into the design
- Principal Contractor and Contractors – manages operational construction safety
- Construction Manager and Assistant Construction Manager(s) and Construction Supervisors – implement the construction safety plans
- Health and Safety Officer – controls applied safety
- Competent persons for specific subjects – responsible for domain-specific matters, e.g. risk plans, fall protection plans, jigging studies and the like. Many of the appointments also require specific qualifications and registration by bodies approved by the Chief Inspector.
The construction community of people, roles and appointments creates a body of knowledge and implements a hierarchy of cascaded safety, through which the safety requirements are operationalized in design, methods of execution, verification, and control and review. The construction community directly benefits from lessons learnt from recorded incident investigations that establish the causes and corrective actions that support continuous improvement.
Incidents and response
Construction is risky. We believe that there is always room to improve safety.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act prescribes the requirements for creating a safe working environment, executing work in a safe manner and the requirements for reporting incidents for investigation. Section 24 of the Act details the wide variety of injury and machinery/plant type incidents that are to be reported, with the General Administrative Regulations 8 and 9 prescribing the reporting periods and manner, and the investigation required and records to be kept. The Construction Regulation 5(3) has further prescribed that, for significant injury incidents, the Contractor responsible for the activities at the time must submit an investigation report to the Inspectorate. The report must provide the steps implemented to ensure a safe construction site going forward.
If you are responsible for activities at a construction site where an incident occurs you have the following main responsibilities:
- Inform the authorities as soon as possible (i.e. local offices of the Department of Labour and SAPS)
- Make the site safe for the evacuation of injured or deceased persons
- Start an investigation in proportion with the severity of the incident and activities at the time. The investigation must record the facts and situation when the incident happened. The investigation report will include photos and records, as these will be key in determining the cause.
Note: Remember that for fatal incidents the DOL Inspectorate will need to give the approval to clear the site.
Incidents of any nature are horrible and affect all people involved. They must be managed and resolved as efficiently as possible for the benefit of all. In many cases, the results of the DOL Inspectorate’s investigations and formal enquiries result in criminal proceedings against the legal entity or individuals. It is important for the Contractor (employer of the injured persons) to record the facts related to the incident, i.e. things that happened leading up to and during the event. It is this factual evidence that will determine regulatory compliance or negligence. During the formal enquiry statements are recorded under oath and again the focus is on gathering the facts related to the incident. The presiding inspector may warn certain persons of their rights of incrimination if such evidence is presented. Evidence given by expert witnesses plays a key role in understanding technically complex issues that have a bearing on the cause of the incident.
Incidents are rarely the product of a singular cause but more often they have several contributory factors/causes. Therefore, it is important that the Contractor can demonstrate that all reasonable, practical interventions were applied to ensure a safe work environment and that safe work practices were applied based on expected risks identified, and that personnel have the necessary training, knowledge and experience for the tasks that they must execute.