Condo collapse shows need for tougher rules in building with concrete

What was to have been a deluxe, five-story condominium lies in rubble in Cocoa Beach, Fla., the result of the concrete floors suddenly collapsing, killing 11 workers.

Now a new federal report shows that the general contractor and four subcontractors on the Cocoa Beach condominium had been cited for various "serious" violations of federal safety regulations on previous projects.

But interviews with construction safety experts find that similar tragedies in the past have failed to bring about tighter federal construction-safety laws -- something many of these experts say are needed.

The violations against Univel, the general contractor for the Cocoa Beach project, include two "serious" violations, records of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) show: for a missing group plug on electrical equipment and open-sided floors during construction. The "serious" violations by subcontractors include an open elevator shaft with no safety belt for nearby workers, open-sided floors (no guard bariers to prevent falls), and no safety belts on workers removing forms.

David Olan Meeker Jr., executive vice-president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), says even strong federal safety rules are not enough. What is needed, he says, are more-experienced building inspectors and stricter state requirements for contractors. The federal government presently lacks adequate capacity to enforce its safety rules, he says.

The March 27 collapse of all five floors of the Cocoa Beach condominium follow these major concrete collapses:

* In 1971, part of a 16-story concrete apartment building under construction in Boston collapsed, killing four persons.

* In 1973, most of a 26-story concrete apartment building being built near Washington, D.C., collapsed, killing 14 persons.

* In 1978, part of a concrete nuclear cooling tower being constructed in Willow Island, W. Va., collapsed, along with scaffolding, killing 51 persons.

In all of these cases, according to OSHA officials, concrete was relied upon before it was dry enough to hold the necessary wieght. In the first two cases, shoring (supports for concrete not yet dry) was either inadequate or removed too soon.

After the Willow Island incident, there was a feeling among some OSHA officials that a more specific safety standard was needed, but "it never got beyond the point of a feeling," says an OSHA spokesman.

What one OSHA official describes as "very general" safety rules on concrete shoring were not changed. Whether the latest collapse spurs a change remains to be seen.

Some federal safety experts say tighter rules would reduce risk. Others say current rules are adequate -- and that those in charge of construction need "flexibility."

The standards "could be tightened up" to reduce risk, says John Miles, who heads enforcement efforts for OSHA. Allen Martin, OSHA's acting director of safety standards, sees some "voids" in current standards relating to concrete. "Uppermost" on his review is shoring standards, he says.

But, Mr. Martin adds, "flexibility" must be allowed in construction work.

Samuel Henry, director of engineering for the American Concrete Institute, says "there is no simple standard." The temperature, mix, and kind of construction job mean safe concrete shoring practices vary, he says.

His institute's standards, which form the basis of the OSHA standards, are "quite general," he says.

Among unsafe construction practices involving concrete, says Mr. Henry, are improper installation or inadequate shoring, ground giving away under the foundation, and not enough cross-bracing.

A recent (but not released) AIA study gives safety suggestions for c onstruction of bridges, stadiums, and other large projects

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