Inadequate construction column support caused Thongathi Mall collapse

A foreman at the Thongathi Mall collapse site testified that the “small pillars” of inadequate construction column support had caved in (see Feb 12 below).

Update; February 13 proceedings

Documents in possession of the Thongathi Mall Commission of Inquiry showed that out of nine inspections conducted to monitor progress of the Thongathi Mall project only one document had the signature of the project engineer, Andre Ballack.

Thongathi Mall Commission of Inquiry, Presiding Officer Phumudzo Maphaha said it was standard procedure within the construction industry that if the signature of an engineer was missing no work should continue.

“It is astounding why a structure of this magnitude would be allowed to continue under this management process. That only one document was signed by an engineer highlights challenges in the management of the project. I find it hard to believe it was a mistake,” Maphaha said.

Risen Naidoo , a sub-contractor doing post tension of concrete including electronic cabling during the project told the Commission that Ballack had passed responsibility of inspection to one of his co-colleagues.

Naidoo confirmed to the Commission that he was aware of the Court order lodged by Ethekwini Munucipality prescribing that the project be stopped last October due to failure of plans to obtain approval.

Ismail van Zyl, a safety consultant hired by leading contractor Gralio Precast told the Commission that he arrived on the project on August 13 when construction had already started and was not happy with the health and safety plans on site

Van Zyl testified that there was no monthly safety audit conducted. He said on two occasions he had come close to stopping work on the project, because he was not happy with scaffolding equipment.

Van Zyl said while he was on site on the day of the Mall collapse, he was not appointed to be there on a daily basis as there were other safety representatives hired by the contractor. He also told the Commission that he had no power to authorise any stripping on site.

According to Van Zyl, he had raised his concerns on the contravention of health and safety regulations, that a person could not be appointed in two positions in the health and safety environment. When cross-examined it appeared that some workers were appointed to oversee more than four activities on site which compromised Occupational Health and Safety regulations.

February 12 proceedings

Foreman Ronnie Pillay said he was hired to supervise the project by the Chief Executive of Gralio Precast, Jay Singh.

Pillay also testified that he had raised concerns about lift shafts and the sagging columns with the engineer of the project and he was assured after an assessment that everything was in order.

According to Pillay on the day of the tragedy in November 2013, there were no deviations from instructions and plans including construction column support.

“Everything on the construction site was progressing well until late in the afternoon when we heard a deep sound and saw slabs giving way and a part of the Mall caving in and collapsing,” Pillay said.

When cross-examined by the Ethekwini Municipality’s legal representatives, Pillay agreed that he was aware of the court orders prohibiting the continuation of the project.

Labour official allegedly drafted a statement

Testifying on the second day of the Commission of Inquiry in Febuary 2014, Pillay disputed a statement that appeared to be written and signed by him under oath.

He alleged that the statement was drafted by an official of the Department of Labour and he was asked to sign it. Pillay said the concerned statement was only read to him at the police station.

He told the commission that he did not agree with some paragraphs in the statement. “I can safely say to this commission this statement is not mine”, he said.

When cross-examined by the presiding officer, it appeared that Ronnie Pillay agreed with the content of the statement, but has concerns with the language used.

Pillay said although he was a foreman on the construction site without any academic qualification in the construction field, his 14 years of experience in the construction industry compensated for this deficiency.

He told the commission that his job included reading of plans and issuing of work to subordinates and general management of staff.

He argued that he had previously worked in various ‘highrise’ construction projects under the supervision of experienced people.

Asked by the Thongathi Mall Commission Presiding Officer Phumudzo Maphaha on his knowledge on Construction Regulation that requires that a competent person (person with knowledge, training, experience and qualification) should be appointed to handle projects of the Thongathi Mall level, he said he was familiar with Construction Regulations.

He could not interpret whether the plans were correct or not, he just followed instructions from superiors.

Pressed on the importance of qualifications to head big construction projects, Pillay acknowledged that in 90% of cases this was imperative, and in instances where he did not understand plans he consulted with his superiors. The Thongathi Mall Commission of Inquiry continues.

Labour minister blames construction process

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant told on the day before the hearing started, that preliminary information indicated that the direct cause of the incident was related to the constuction method or process used.

She cited the incident as an example of the need for appointing private specialists to a technical committee now being formed under authority of the Construction Regulations Amendment, given powers to inspect sites and company records, and charged with reporting to the chief inspector.

* Source; Department of Labour

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3 thoughts on “Inadequate construction column support caused Thongathi Mall collapse

  1. “According to Van Zyl, he had raised his concerns on the contravention of health and safety regulations, that a person could not be appointed in two positions in the health and safety environment. When cross-examined it appeared that some workers were appointed to oversee more than four activities on site which compromised Occupational Health and Safety regulations.”

    I find this statement rather contradictory to standard practice in industry. And also invalid.
    Van Zyl should clarify this, as in my opinion, I think he referred to letters of appointment, and not functions and responsibilities. If the commission were to examine these appointments, it would be able to determine the amount of work, one person had to do, based on the “job description” in the letters.

    Would he have said the same, if the appointee had ONE only letter, giving him more than one function?
    The OHSAct is designed around large organisations, but fails to provide specific guidelines for small contractors, with work teams of less than 20. Because of the generic H&S Systems being passed on from one generation to the next, like an inherent disease, the requirements of having up to 29 appointments on a site, is seldom attainable by small companies. This would create the impression that appointees are “over-loaded”.

    The general supervisory duties may have been neglected, but blaming a flawed system is not the answer.

  2. This includes 34 general and 36 construction appointments.
    So I see on the internet, there are thus 70 appointments required? Holy Mackarel!
    I would be overworked just from signing them all.

  3. Tongaat remains in the news.
    Johannesburg – Two men were injured, one of them critically, when they fell from scaffolding in the Tongaat CBD, KwaZulu-Natal, on Monday, paramedics said.

    Netcare 911 spokesperson Chris Botha said they were working when they fell several metres and landed on an elevated area.

    “Paramedics and firemen immobilised the patients in specialised stretchers before using a rope system to lower them to the road level.”

    The cause of their fall was not immediately known and police were investigating, Botha said.

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