‘111 dead, 188 hurt and a city in shock’
This was the headline in the Kansas City Star from July 19, 1981, reporting on the collapse of two walkways at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City two days earlier. Today is the 40th anniversary of the news report on this disaster. Dr Nick Bell reflects on lessons that we still need to draw from this incident.
At the time of writing, work is ongoing at the site of the Champlain Towers apartment block in Miami, which partially collapsed on 24 June. The final death toll could exceed that of the Kansas City disaster.
The immediate cause of the collapse of the walkways in the Hyatt Hotel 40 years ago lay in the arrangement of hanger rods. The walkways crossing the atrium were suspended from the ceiling on these rods. One of the walkways was directly below another one.
The steel manufacturing contractor proposed an alternative design. Rather than have both walkways connected to the ceiling on the same, continuous rod, they proposed that the lower walkway should be suspended from the higher walkway on a separate rod. However, this meant that a nut on the higher walkway was then supporting the weight of two walkways. The beams split and the nuts slipped through the gap.
The investigation revealed many underlying causes. These included the decision to change the original design, poor communications, poor or no calculations and so on.
In the UK, the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) should help to prevent incidents like this.
The client puts the overall arrangements in place for delivering a healthy and safe project. For example, appointing the right people and assigning adequate time and resources to the project. With inadequate time and resources, people could end up working too quickly or cutting costs in the wrong areas. Although there were obviously numerous factors involved in the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Guardian recently drew attention to the decision to save money by altering the choice of cladding.
Changes to designs
The Principal Designer acts as a facilitator during the pre-construction phase, making sure that everyone has adequate information and that arrangements are in place to allow designers to co-ordinate their work and consider and mitigate risks associated with their designs.
The Hyatt hotel disaster highlighted two crucial points; contractors can make design decisions or propose changes to designs, and; design changes need to be very carefully considered.
Over the years I have seen how the industry often still fails in both these areas. As a simple (and common) example, mechanical and electrical contractors usually have no input into the overall size and shape of plant rooms, the service corridors through buildings and so on. All too often their plant and equipment is then ‘squeezed’ into too small a space to safely install and maintain and/or it is necessary to incur the costs, delays and risks involved in diamond drilling holes in walls which could easily have been pre-formed. The photos below show one such situation that ultimately resulted in much of the plant being dismantled and replaced after a redesign.
Design changes, almost by definition, are proposed part way through a project. Until the redesign is complete, one element of work may be delayed, which could hold up other packages. Project teams could face claims if project milestones, particularly completion dates, slip. Therefore, teams can face tremendous pressure to rush through changes which do not then get the attention they deserve.
Most of the solutions speak for themselves; ensuring clients understand their duties; creating a culture of collaboration; ensuring that we have the right people, with the right information, time and resources to fulfil their duties; helping designers to consider and resolve significant risks, and; early contractor involvement. This should help limit subsequent design changes but, if they happen, they need the same care that must be given to the original design.
The Building Safety Bill and an associated code of practice, may eventually help to address these issues on high-risk buildings. There is also an ongoing exercise to define the competency requirements for the key dutyholders in the Bill, including the principal designer. In common with the previous two year’s business plans, the HSE states that they will explore how principal designer services are delivered. This could generate much-needed examples about what constitutes good or poor practice. In the past five years, 5395 enforcement notices have been issued in relation to CDM. Only 20, or 0.37%, of these notices have been issued to PD.
As the news about the Miami disaster unfolds, I am reminded that there has been a litany of disasters in our built environment. Occasionally, like Miami, these involve structures that are several decades old (another recent example is the Morandi bridge collapse in Genoa). However, the Kansas City case study shows that these sometimes involve newly-constructed buildings (another example being the Ronan point tower collapse in the UK in 1968) or recently refurbished buildings (such as Grenfell). There are significant changes on the horizon which should help ensure that we are, today, not planning, designing and building the disasters of tomorrow.
Article images: courtesy of the author
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