Editorial : Irregularities Revealed by Crane Collapse Probe

【明報專訊】The Labour Department has completed an investigation regarding the tower crane collapse that caused multiple innocent deaths at a Hong Kong Housing Society construction site on Anderson Road. A total of 67 prosecutions were initiated against the contractor, subcontractors and a number of individuals, involving at least seven companies, suggesting serious contraventions. According to an expert investigation, from the approval to the construction of the tower crane involved, there were problems in all procedures, showing how slipshod the engineering was. The incident involved multiple instances of dereliction of duty. The responsibility of the Housing Society and the government in supervising the construction equally warrants concern. The authorities must initiate prosecutions for criminal liability strictly and make investigation reports public to prevent the spread of a sloppy culture and unlawful irregularities in the industry.

Last September, a tower crane collapsed suddenly at a Housing Society building site on Anderson Road in Sau Mau Ping. It fell onto the temporary container offices underneath it, resulting in three deaths and six injuries. In the aftermath, the police were responsible for investigating the criminal liabilities of relevant parties for negligence, while the Labour Department was in charge of launching an industrial accident investigation. After a half-year probe, the Labour Department announced a few days ago that it has completed the investigation. The report by independent experts shows that there were two main causes of the accident. The first was the faulty design of the crane foundation. Its allowable bearing stress was miscalculated, resulting in its carrying the wrong loads. The second was "flaws" in the welding work of the foundation, which made welded joints defective, thus affecting its bearing capacity.

Having consulted the Department of Justice, the Labour Department decided to initiate a total of 67 prosecutions against the contractor, subcontractors and individual responsible parties. However, the names of the defendants and the specific charges faced by each of the accused have not been disclosed. The details of the case may not be known until the court convenes.

Obviously, the crane collapse accident was not caused by the negligence or mistakes of simply one or two people. According to a local structural engineer, before a tower crane is erected on a construction site, if it is to be connected to a foundation by welding, the contractor's structural engineer has to calculate the thickness of the welding first and draw up plans for that. It should then be reviewed by the consultant firm's on-site engineer. Only after approval should the plans be handed over to frontline workers for execution. Sometimes, the contract may even specify that they have to seek the opinion of one more independent engineer as secondary gatekeeping. The Labour Department also has authorised agents to examine the work. Furthermore, after the workers have finished the weld, someone should also double-check to ensure that the welded joint is "sturdy".

However, the system of "multiple gatekeeping" clearly failed to function in the incident. There are two possible reasons. One is that the relevant duty holders and gatekeepers had not done their job well and took slapdash approaches. Another is that they had not followed the supposed procedures at all. One may not even rule out the possibility that somebody, in order to cover up the truth, resorted to fraud and deception, which leads to issues of corruption. Ignoring building safety is like acting with utter disregard for human life. The laws invoked by the Labour Department regarding the case carry the highest penalty of only $500,000 in fine and half a year in jail. This inevitably raises concern about whether the highest penalty can reflect the seriousness of a tragedy which claimed three lives and caused six injuries.

In theory, the authorities send agents to construction sites regularly for independent safety audits and blitz inspections. However, they usually resort to looking through documents and exercising "oversight on paper". Slack government supervision can easily breed actions such as pretending to obey the rules and participating in fraud. In the coming 10 years, Hong Kong will launch multiple megaprojects. A short-staffed construction industry will make haste to keep projects on schedule. If the government fails to find ways to strengthen regulations, it may foment chaos of all kinds.

明報社評2023.03.08:塌天秤調查揭亂象 莫讓苟且文化蔓延









contravention : the fact of doing sth that is not allowed by a law or rule

slipshod : done without care; doing things without care

foment : to create trouble or violence or make it worse

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