Collapse of scaffold, casualties lift lead on safety lapses at construction sites

Workers asses scaffold at Mombasa Law Courts during construction on September 2, 2020. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

The weakening and fall of a scaffold of Bajuun Tower that caused the death of four workers on Saturday afternoon has exposed the safety lapse and negligence at the construction sites in the country.

The residential building under construction is located along Mukunga Drive, off Juja Road in Eastleigh, Nairobi.

The continued negligence by the construction managers and developers has led to many deaths and injuries that sometimes go unnoticed or reported.

The construction boom in Nairobi has been blamed for the high rate of accidents and loss of lives among young men and women.

A 2017 data from the Directorate of Occupational Safety and Health (Dosh) recorded 237 accidents in four years, with 32 fatalities in Nairobi.

The data showed about 115 men aged 21 to 40 were seriously injured during the period, some of them sustaining lifetime disabilities.

More than 70 per cent of the injured or workers killed in accidents at construction sites in Nairobi were aged below 40 years.

The data was analysed in a new study on the safety of construction sites in Nairobi by a team led by Raymond Kemei of the Kenya Army Corps of Engineers of the Kenya Defence Forces.

Most of the accidents in the study occurred in Kasarani, Embakasi, Westlands and Kibera sub-counties.

 “Kasarani had the highest number of reported accidents while Kibera had the highest number of fatal accidents,” said the study in the September issue of the American Journal of Construction and Building Materials.

According to the Principal Secretary in the State Department for Public Works Joel Arumonyang, the Bajuun Towers was designed to comprise 17 floors. He said at the time of the incident, construction workers were carrying out plaster works on the external walls of the 15th, 16th and 17th floors.

“The workers were operating from a timber platform supported by a scaffold made of old wooden planks. Due to weather elements, the structure had become weak and unsound, and could no longer support the weight of the workers, equipment and materials. As works progressed, the scaffold collapsed from the 10th floor all the way up, and fell onto the adjacent property, taking down the workers with it,” said Mr Arumonyang.

“The scaffolding structure also lacked proper maintenance and thus its collapse was imminent,” he added.

Project planning

According to Nashon Okowa, a construction manager and director of Beacon Africa, it’s unfortunate that construction sites are still relegated to be afterthoughts.

“Hardly do safety discussions come up during project planning. There is not much careful attention that is paid to it like we do to cost, quality or even time on projects. We are losing too many lives that are not even reported,” said Okowa.

He says the Eastleigh scaffolding accident is consistent with the carelessness we see in most construction projects around Nairobi and other parts of the country. “It is unfortunate but not surprising,” said Okowa.

Okowa says construction site safety is primarily guided by the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2007 and they are well-laid-out guidelines on how to carry out safe construction sites. So the problem is not the law but the enforcement of the law.

“Until we shall unequivocally hold to account those to whom we, as people, have bestowed the responsibility of supervising construction on our behalf, such safety issues will continue to augment unabated. We will complain in a short while and wait for the next incident. Sadly!” he said.

It’s not only the safety of the scaffolding that is now causing deaths and injuries at construction sites but other factors including lack of protective gear by workers. According to the PS, it was observed that on the day of the incident, the construction workers lacked personal protective equipment, especially helmets and safety harnesses.

A spot check by Real Estate in most of the city’s construction sites shows how workers have no protective gear, pointing to the negligence of the National Construction Authority(NCA) officers in their inspection role. This is as young jobless Kenyans risk their lives to construct billions worthy of properties.

For instance, in Pipeline Estate, Embakasi South, buildings are constructed in residential areas without safety warnings or barriers to protect those who pass by.

Passersby have to duck stones and concrete that fall from highrise buildings as construction workers are seen busy preparing concrete and driving it up. “It’s unfortunate that these developers are so unconcerned about our safety and as you can see for yourself here, the safety of residents passing by is not even their concern,” said John Wanyama, a resident.

The workers, mostly without safety gear are seen carrying stones with bare hands or on their backs to the site. As they mix the concrete with bare hands, some inhale the concrete dust as they have no masks.

According to PS Arumonyang, all persons working on construction sites are advised to work on platforms and use scaffolds that meet the approved safety and design standards.

Design standards

However, it was not mentioned in the statement what are approved safety and design standards.

Two, the regulations about the safety of works at height should be strictly adhered to and the consultants involved in the supervision of such works should ensure the temporary works used by contractors are approved.

“Three is that contractors must ensure construction workers adhere to the safety standards and finally developers and contractors bear the greatest responsibility to provide a healthy and safe working environment for their workers,” said the PS.

It will remain to seen whether these precautions will be followed going forward or we will wait until another construction site accident happens again and statements are released.

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