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The Swanston St Wall Collapse Report


The contributing factors

Investigators believe that a gust of a strong wind that hit the city could have contributed to the collapse of the Swanston St Wall. According to the data from the Bureau of Meteorology, the estimated speed of the wind was 102 km/h at the time (shortly before 3 pm) the wall collapsed (Millar and Lucas, 2013).

The Bureau of Metrology estimated that the “average wind speed for a 10-minute period at 3 pm was 83 km/h” (Millar and Lucas, 2013). The Bureau considers a wind of such a magnitude as strong and has the ability to dislocate roofs from houses and break limbs from trees.

Another possible cause of the wall collapse is the sign that had been hanging there for the last 17 months. As a result, many investigators have focused on the possible role of the advertisement board. They believed that it could have created a sail-like effect in such a strong wind.

Finally, investigators would also focus on tree roots to determine if they could have cracked and made the wall weak (Shand and Baxendale, 2013).

What happened?

Architectural engineers concurred that, if the advertisement sign was notably higher than the wall that held it, then there were chances that it tampered with the safety of the wall (Millar and Gough, 2013). In this respect, the signboard acted as a sail or parachute when the strong wing hit the city. This potentially enhanced the collapse of the Swanston St Wall.

Some tenants who occupy the opposite buildings noted that the advertisement sign was more than one metre taller than the brick wall that held it. Richard Eckhaus, an engineer from the Engineers Australia Structural College noted that a taller hoarding than the wall could have contributed to the collapse of the wall.

The outcomes

The collapsed wall hit straight on the footpath and caused severe injuries to three pedestrians, who were passing near the wall when it collapsed. They sustained injuries from the falling debris and bricks.

Three people also lost their lives. They included “Alexander Jones, 19 years old; Marie-Faith Fiawoo, 33 years old and Bridget Jones, 18 years old. Both Alexander and Marie-Faith died at the scene of the accident due to injuries they sustained while Bridget Jones succumbed to her injuries after three days while undergoing treatment.

Australian authorities have embarked on a series of investigations in order to ascertain the exact cause of the collapse. Different city authorities have also called for a countrywide inspection of dangerous buildings in order to avert any potential future disasters. In addition, the State Coroner also initiated initial hearings into the death of three pedestrians.

The status of investigations into this accident

Currently, investigations are underway to ascertain causes of the collapse and its consequences. However, some of the architects have already reacted by questioning the safety of the brick walls constructed in the 1960s and 1970s (Millar and Gough, 2013).

Trevor Huggard, an engineer and a former Melbourne lord mayor noted that “a building regulation dating back to the 1930s, but still in place, dictates that such external walls must not be more than 6 feet, or 1.8 metres, high” (Millar and Gough, 2013). In addition, he also observed that the wall met the standard approach of an external building wall construction at the time.

However, after a careful review of the photographs, the engineer concluded that the Swanston St Wall was poorly constructed. The wall lacked a significant number of metal ties, which were responsible for holding the two courses of the wall together. In addition, the wall seemed to lack buttresses or any other supports. Haggard concluded that the brick wall “appeared to contravene every rule in the book” (Millar and Gough, 2013).

Who was responsible?

According to Planning Ministry, the property developer has the responsibility of obtaining all the relevant permits for the site (Vedelago and Johanson, 2013). The Melbourne City Council has the responsibility of ensuring that such developers adhere to the city regulations. On the other hand, the City Council responded that the Ministry had the responsibility of issuing planning permits for the site.

These two offices demonstrate that issues of who bear responsibility for such accidents are daunting. Clearly, the Planning Ministry must ensure effective planning while the City Council has the authority on all structures within the public domain and any advertisement. In addition, the Building Commission and WorkSafe also have responsibilities in this case.

Overall, all relevant government agencies bear ethical responsibility for the collapsed wall. Further investigations would prove whether the owner of the site had relevant documents, including advertisement permit. These investigations would show the government agency that has a legal responsibility of the collapsed wall.

The owner of the building site and some of his engineers bear legal responsibility for the collapsed wall. Possibly, they would face criminal charges if all the investigations conclude that the collapse took place due to negligence of the owner and engineers.

WorkSafe must investigate the collapse of the Swanston St Wall. It may also be prudent to invite Melbourne North Crime Investigation Unit to probe the collapse of the wall.

Some observers believe that the construction company (Grocon) bear legal responsibility because of the signboard (Shand and Baxendale, 2013). WorkSafe must probe whether the wall had a proper support and what the billboard and the wind did to cause the collapse of the wall.

Legal liabilities will depend on whether WorkSafe finds “evidence of negligence on the part of the owners, workers, contractors, or managers for any work that was done or failed to be done on the site” (Vedelago and Johanson, 2013). According to the Occupation Health and Safety Act, an employer has “a duty to ensure that the public is not exposed to health or safety risks from work sites” (Australian Government, 2013).

WorkSafe has the ability to present cases for prosecution under different states’ health and safety acts (WorkSafe Victoria, 2013). In some circumstance, the body may refer some cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions for prosecution under the Crimes Act (WorkSafe Victoria, 2013).

Overall, all parties involved in regulation of city structures, the owner of the structure, and the engineers have ethical and legal responsibilities to protect the public from such accidents.

Was the accident foreseeable and preventable?

The Swanston St Wall was not heritage listed. This may raise questions on why the wall was still there, although it is almost a century old.

For several years, councillors and other parties that ensure safety of the city have claimed that the sight like CUB Swanston St should not be “cleared or partly cleared until the proposed development is ready to begin after approval and funding” (Millar and Gough, 2013). This indicates that wall was dangerous to the public and constructors on the site.

It is also imperative to note that the city authorities once cleared the site as a bombsite. However, the developer and city authorities did not take any action to ensure that the place was safe. Usually, a bombsite has high risks than other finished structures. The developer failed to develop the Swanston Square as required. This increased the public exposure to the danger of the wall. Hence, the accident was foreseeable and preventable.

Possible Prosecution by WorkSafe under the Victorian OHS Act 2004

The major role of OHS Act is to ensure “the health and safety of employees rest with employers, as well as any person who has the ability to control the health and safety of employees through their acts or omissions” (Australian Government, 2013). The OHS sets the standards and required guidelines for compliance with various laws of OHS. Different states have their standards rules in order to reduce cases of unexpected danger.

The OHS implementation also depends on specific industries or fields of employment. The WorkSafe should be constructive and accountable in order to ensure compliance among stakeholders as required. Moreover, WorkSafe also offers advice and assistance for employees and employers on how to enhance their safety at workplaces.

The OHS Act 2004 places the onus on the owner of the site (employer) who should ensure that employees are safe and healthy.

WorkSafe must ensure effective investigation and regulation by providing “clear, accessible advice and guidance about what constitutes compliance with the Act and Regulations” (WorkSafe Victoria, 2013). The agency must use Compliance Codes, WorkSafe standards, and any other requirements, which depend on the nature of the job to warrant investigations.

WorkSafe must provide convincing solutions on the matter of who was responsible for safety of the wall and permit for the attached hoarding. The permit of the billboard has remained a contentious issue since the collapse of the wall. For instance, the Melbourne City Council has insisted that it did not issue any permit and the issue of responsibility lies with the State Planning Ministry.

On the other hand, the Planning Minister noted that the City Council was responsible for enforcing all city laws. The property developer has refused to comment on the matter. Overall, one must note that the issue of the hoarding permit is a delicate matter between the City Council and the Planning Ministry. This situation has made it difficult for the public to determine who bears the responsibility because of negligence.

WorkSafe must harmonious several regulations and establish the relationship between these regulations. The agency must be able to show various points of action for different authorities in managing city buildings and sites. Hence, WorkSafe must establish who is responsible for the safety of the site, the building, and the collapsed wall.

WorkSafe must also establish whether there was a legal onus for the owner of the building and the developer to provide regular updates about the deterioration condition of the wall and public safety measures. According to legal requirements, owners of derelict sites must provide such information annually to the government (Shand, 2013).

The Agency must resolve the conflict between the City Council and the Planning Ministry with the issue of the hoarding approval. According to the City Council, the Planning Ministry is responsible for the planning permit of the site. In addition, the Ministry also controls large plots, which are above 25,000sq m in size. On the contrary, the Planning Ministry says that the City Council approves all hoarding within the city.

Approval of the advertisement billboard was not a part of the Ministry’s role. The Planning Ministry only provided a permit for the development of the site, but it failed to ensure that the development commenced as required under the law. Shand notes that, “Melbourne City Council has been unable to locate paperwork relating to any application” (Shand, 2013).

Given the squabble between these two government agencies, it would be difficult for WorkSafe to hold any of them accountable unless issues of roles and responsibilities become clear. WorkSafe may only prosecute the owner of the site and the engineer for negligence on safety of the public.

Some of the “lessons learned” from The Swanston St Wall Collapse

Several engineers pointed at the hoarding as a possible contributor to the collapse of the wall because it was taller than the wall that held it. In this respect, the hoarding could have acted as a parachute for the wind. Clear, walls should not bear advertisement billboards that are taller than they are in Melbourne, especially in windy areas. In addition, Melbourne has strong winds, which can make walls constructed in 1960s to collapse.

There is a need to review and audit conditions and safety of such walls in the country and report on their conditions. There are many ‘bombsites’ in Australia, which are not heritage listed. An audit would review the number of such walls and provide safety to the public against any possible collapse from strong winds.

The OHS Act 2004 is clear on the roles and responsibilities of employers and employees in the workplace. However, this is not the case with the Planning Ministry and the Melbourne City Council. These arms of the government have overlapping roles in managing sites and issuing of permits.

There is no clear point on where their duties end. This has made it difficult to hold any department accountable for the collapsed wall. Hence, the Planning Ministry and the City Council require a new definition of their roles and responsibilities.

Law enforcement has not been effective in managing derelict sites. For instance, the owner of such buildings should provide annual updates about conditions of their structures with regard to public safety. In addition, they should also develop such sites immediately after the issuance of permits.

However, it is obvious that the owner of the Swanston St Wall site did not do so. This is a violation of public safety rules, which WorkSafe should not tolerate.

The Swanston St did not have an adequate exclusion area for pedestrians. This is a mandatory requirement in public places, which have ongoing construction works.

Engineers believe that the wall lacked adequate reinforcement. Unreinforced brick walls are highly prone to cracks after several years. Moreover, they can easily collapse under pressure from strong winds. Strong reinforcement is necessary for such walls (Ayub, 2010).

Engineers noted that the foundation of the collapsed wall did not have strong buttresses and supports. In addition, it lacked any form of reinforcement to resist possible pressure from strong winds or hoarding boards (Levy and Salvadori, 1992).

It is important to build strong buttresses and support systems for walls in order to resist strong winds, cracks, and weights. Braces are also necessary in double walls to keep them together. Engineers examined the photographs and noted cracks.

The wall was unable to resist the strong winds and support the hoarding that created a sail-like effect in the strong wind. This could have caused the collapse of the wall. The brick walls tend to crack fast under pressure. Analysis of the photographs revealed several cracks on the brick wall. Many engineers believed that they could have resulted from tree roots due to a weak foundation (Petroski, 1994).

It is important to note that the developer and the owner could have prevented the accident because they knew all about safety requirements for such structures. The lack of the support from the ground was rather obvious. Additional of the advertisement billboard was a big mistake. The site owner could have ignored yearly audit required to ascertain the safety of the structure.

Although numbers of collapsing structures are not common in Australia relative to other places, such cases indicate potentially dangerous buildings that can collapse under such extreme conditions (Wearne, 2000).

Description and justification any changes to existing professional engineering practices, work practices, OHS legislation, or OHS regulation in Victoria

The OSH Act 2004 provides clear safety requirements and practices for employers and employees at the workplace to observe and maintain. However, in this case, neither the employer nor the engineer observed the OSH Act requirements. In this regard, risk control is a process that all stakeholders must observe in the construction industry.

The site took more than seven years after approval before any construction could begin. This is against the regulation, which requires that developer must start immediate construction after approval. The law should be strict on such site owners and developers.

All constructions should have clear erection guidelines, which are specific to the site of construction. Such sites are prone to danger than other sites. Hence, the site must adhere to set guidelines. Tall walls may also require additional support during construction to support loads (Virdi, 2000). The drawing must capture such requirements.

Engineers must insist on exclusion zones to keep away the public from potential collapse zones. This was not the case at the CUB Swanston St. There should be clear signs for pedestrians to avoid such paths. However, the developer did not put a warning sign to the public.

The OSH Act 2004 and WorkSafe should understand roles and responsibilities of the Planning Ministry and the City Council. These two organisations tend to engage in squabbles during such crises. WorkSafe should approach investigations based on specific legal and ethical responsibilities of various parties.

There is a need to insist on professional and ethical engineering practices at workplaces. Engineers have professional, ethical, and legal responsibilities at the workplace. Adequate awareness and education can promote good practices during construction.

Finally, OSH and WorkSafe should insist on classic scientific methods on investigating structural failures and collapsed buildings. Review of the evidence should be systematic. Investigators should conduct careful analyses of photographic documentation, measurements of the structures against approved limits, and other clues that may provide substantial evidence (Feld and Carper, 1997).

Witnesses are important in effective investigation of any accidents. This process must also include a thorough analysis of construction documents and geotechnical reports of the site.

Engineers should observe the site and provide their opinions before disasters strike. They can develop several hypotheses to explain the cause of structural failures for future improvement. Finally, every stage must undergo a thorough analysis by using engineering standards. This is the best method to gauge the party responsible for the structural failure.

Reference List

Australian Government 2013, . Web.

Ayub, M 2010, ‘Structural Collapses During Construction: Lessons Learned, 1990-2008’, Structure Magazine, pp. 1-8.

Feld, J and Carper, K 1997, Construction Failure, John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Levy, M and Salvadori, M 1992, Why Buildings Fall Down, Norton & Co, New York.

Millar, R and Gough, D 2013, . Web.

Millar, R and Lucas, C 2013, . Web.

Petroski, H 1994, Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Shand, A 2013, Doubts Grocon had permit for hoarding. Web.

Shand, A and Baxendale, R 2013, Questions raised over role of Grocon billboard in wall collapse. Web.

Vedelago, C and Johanson, S 2013, . Web.

Virdi, K 2000, Abnormal Loading on Structures: Experimental and Numerical Modelling, Taylor & Francis, New York.

Wearne, P 2000, Collapse: when buildings fall down, TV Books, Orlando.

WorkSafe Victoria 2013, Occupational Health & Safety. Web.

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IvyPanda. "The Swanston St Wall Collapse." January 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-swanston-st-wall-collapse-2/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "The Swanston St Wall Collapse." January 2, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-swanston-st-wall-collapse-2/.

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