Ethics in the Construction Industry: Tragedies in 2013

Tragedies in The Construction Industry In 2013

Throughout the 2013, the media was plagued with news of building collapses that made headlines around the world:

The Thane building collapse in India on April 2013 that killed 74 people was named as one of the worst building collapses in India allegedly due to its illegal construction that did not follow a safe and lawful construction, land acquisition and residency occupancy laws.

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Photo: oneindia.com

In April 2013, the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh collapsed with a death toll of 1,129 people and left 2,515 injured. It is considered the deadliest accidental structure failure in modern human history. Warnings to avoid using the building after cracks appeared the day before were ignored. The owner of the factory tried to flee the country and was arrested for the disaster. The building was eight stories high and after an investigation, it was discovered that the upper four floors had been constructed illegally. While the factory owner clearly shared some guilt for this act, the company that built the floors without a permit surely shares the blame for the disaster.

In China, there were two separate cases of building collapses in June and October 2013; while in the city of Suzhou an explosion due to a gas leak toppled a building killing at least 11 people, in North East China a building collapsed killing 9 people due to a heavy snow fall. Building collapses are not an uncommon issue in China where construction practices and materials used are, in many cases, found to be substandard.

The roof slab of the Tonggat Mall in South Africa collapsed on November 2013, killing 2 people and injuring many others. The company in charge of its construction allegedly ignored a court order to halt operations at the half-built mall due to health and safety concerns.

On November 2013, the roof of the ‘Maxima Supermarket’ located in Riga, Latvia collapsed, killing 54 people including rescue workers. It was the worst disaster in Latvia in recent years, forcing the country’s Premier to quit. The cause of the collapse was not very clear but much speculation had been towards a design error and work safety violations.

All of these cases (and many more) that happened during the course of 2013 makes us wonder: were they the result of unethical decisions? What made companies and owners behave in such a manner? How could we prevent this from happening in the future?

Are ethics important or even relevant?

When people hear about “business ethics,” many believe this simply means obeying the law or that has something related to financial aspects. People who actually have experience working in the real world know it is not so simple. It is not uncommon for people to do things that are not ethical in order to remain in business or to please the higher-ups in a company. One business where many ethical lapses are common is the construction business.

It is common for small construction companies to think that “the industry is not about building structures that are strong, but making something as strong as possible while using the minimal amount of material and labor necessary in order to reduce costs and increase profits.” Yes, profits are necessary for any business to stay afloat, but how much can be reduced before anything can go wrong?

For example, some projects which have the permits for construction and even the support of government and the public, such as The Big Dig in Boston, can have issues of unethical behavior. The Big Dig was a project to build an underground tunnel to replace an aging elevated highway. The project ran more than four times over budget by the time it was finished. Some of the contractors chose to use some materials that were of inferior quality, such as concrete. In 2006, part of the tunnel ceiling collapsed, killing a motorist. It was discovered the construction firm used the wrong type of epoxy to secure the concrete ceiling and charges were pressed, and ultimately dropped against the supplier, Powers Fasteners, for failing to properly warn the construction firm about the dangers of using a fast drying epoxy.

However, just building a structure as strong as possible is not always practical due to the expense that would be involved. Skilled engineers design structures, be it apartment complexes or office buildings, to use the smallest amount of material possible while also making the structure strong and less expensive than it would be otherwise. Not only that, schedules and costs play a similar or even a more important part (especially costs) when it comes to building something.

What kind of ethical lapses occur at construction firms?, why they happen?, and what are the ‘guardrails’ that governments, private companies and society at large could built in order to prevent engineers, managers and companies from making such decisions that end up costing not only money, but people’s jobs and ultimately their lives? We will review this in the following parts of this post by looking at hiring practices, human flaws shown by Milgram and Zimbardo, corporate structure, and the implementation of ethics codes.

Authors: Ricardo Bielma / Jason Richards

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