Buildings collapse because of ‘structural’ – including ‘systemic’ – flaws

Yet beyond these reforms the government should also address the widespread perception that the authorities are in cahoots with the construction industry

In an interview with this newspaper – following two construction-related fatalities, in one week – OHSA chairman Mark Gauci argued that “such accidents can only truly become preventable, if ALL the duty-holders live up to their legal responsibilities – not just the OHSA; and not just the other agencies and entities that regulate the various sectors involved… but everyone, throughout the entire chain of responsibility.”

Unfortunately, this warning was not enough to prevent yet another fatal accident from occurring. On Sunday, the lifeless body of Jean-Paul Sofia, 20 from Swatar, was recovered from beneath the rubble of a three-storey building at the Corradino industrial estate: which had collapsed on Saturday morning, as workers were pumping concrete on the ceiling of the third floor. Five other workers were recovered alive from the rubble, and taken to hospital for grievous and (in three cases) critical injuries.

The facts behind the latest construction fatality are still being established in a magisterial inquiry led by Marseanne Farrugia, which will hopefully establish the precise responsibilities: to be followed, where necessary, by court arraignments. 

But while the specific responsibilities are yet to be established, when seen in a context of other fatalities in the construction sector, one cannot escape the conclusion that there were structural failures: not just within the building itself; but also within the institutional framework hat governs the construction industry, as a whole.

One of the greatest of these institutional failures is surely the absence of any formal licensing scheme for contractors: which, though long promised, has never materialised.

Such a scheme would necessitate that only licensed contractors would be able to oversee construction works. Given that the construction sector is very clearly a ‘high-risk industry’, this should really have been a sine-qua-non, right from the start: just as doctors must have a warrant to practice medicine in Malta, so too should contractors have a licence to oversee a construction project.

Moreover, contractors who fail to fulfil their obligations would – with a licensing-regime in pace - be struck off the register, and blacklisted according to transparent criteria.  And while contractors in breach of rules should be automatically excluded, a point system favouring those opting for the highest standards could also be considered: especially with regard to contractors awarded government tenders.  

It should also go without saying, that contractors with a previous criminal record related to construction incidents should be excluded: at least, for a timeframe which corresponds to the gravity of the offence (with permanent interdiction in cases where they are found directly responsible for fatalities.)  

We urgently need such a system in Malta: not only to create a level playing field for responsible contractors - who often find themselves competing in a race to the bottom - but primarily to safeguard the life and health of workers and residents alike. (In fact, even the Malta Developers Association has been calling for such a register for years.)  

But strangely, despite a widespread consensus for its implementation, the government has yet to implement such a basic reform.  This raises the question: why is the government dilly-dallying, over an issue that could potentially save lives?  

Unfortunately, as things stand, all a contractor needs to do before embarking on a project, is to engage a licensed mason to be present on site during the works.  Yet this is clearly not enough to stop cowboys with no track record from making a quick buck, in what has become Malta’s ‘gold rush’: often fuelled by the availability of cheap labour and the lucrative appeal of the never ending building boom.  

As regards the inquiry itself: it is crucial that its findings also serve to inform government authorities (including the Building and Construction Authority) on the steps needed to avoid a repetition of these tragedies. For any action to improve standards in the construction sector, must kick off with a careful analysis of data.

The information does exist; it is found in each and every magisterial inquiry that is launched whenever there is a fatality or serious accident. Unfortunately, however, this information is often kept secret, and not aggregated for proper analysis. Beyond what people may think happened in a particular accident, the dynamics of a fatal accident are always established by experts contributing to the magisterial inquiries. 

But this data is useless, if it is left to simply gather dust on a shelf. There needs to be legislative intervention to ensure that the data gathered in the separate inquiries is passed on to the Building and Construction Authority for general analysis.

Yet beyond these reforms the government should also address the widespread perception that the authorities are in cahoots with the construction industry.  It is therefore unacceptable that the chairman of the Building and Construction Authority is chaired by a practising architect (Maria Grazia Schembri) who regularly represents big developers in the planning process.  

It is time for regulatory authorities to stand out as fair and strict arbiters in a sector marred by abuse; and this, too, is what the OHSA chairman clearly meant, when he argued that ‘everyone, throughout the entire chain of command, has to live up to their responsibilities.’