Church building collapse, a clarion call for duty holders

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I have said it before, and I will say it again, that building construction is a high risk activity that must be effectively controlled by building owners and effectively regulated by the government. This was the first paragraph in my article titled, “Averting building collapse in Lagos State”, published in Punch Newspaper and dated April 12, 2016.

I am sure if building owners, and more importantly, principal contractors and designers who are responsible for the design and construction of buildings are mandated by the relevant regulatory bodies to work in compliance with established construction specific health and safety legislation and penalized upon contravention of such, catastrophic incidents like the collapse of the new church building of Reigners Bible Church during a special service on Saturday, December 10, 2016 attended by the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Udom Emmanuel with a large entourage comprising his deputy, Mr Moses Ekpo and many senior officials of the state government would have been averted. Unfortunately, the catastrophic incident left several worshippers trapped with many dead and many more injured. According to the News Agency of Nigeria, the church’s iron rafters caved in during the consecration service of the Founder of the church, Apostle Akan Weeks, as a bishop. Though the police are yet to give a figure to the fatalities involved, eyewitnesses said they counted not less than 50 bodies as published in Punch Newspaper dated, December 10, 2016 while The Sun Newspaper estimated the number of worshippers that died as 100.

While this is being extensively discussed at the IOSH-Nigeria Informal Network Group and Safety Advocates Group, as expected, there has been various reactions as well by the State and Federal Government to this incident but then it is worthy of note that this is not the first church to have collapsed in Nigeria and as such, it is obvious that the State and Federal Government is not doing enough to prevent this type of incidents and this is rather disappointing. Once again, it is a reminder of the six-story building (guest house) collapse belonging to the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) at the Ejigbo area of Lagos on September 12, 2014, in which 116 persons, mostly South Africans, lost their lives. Going by the number of fatalities recorded within the first two days of the Uyo Church collapse, we might be having a higher number than was recorded at SCOAN.

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How many more Nigerians do we expect to die of church building collapse before government takes appropriate holistic action to address its reoccurrence? Does this then mean life is cheap in Nigeria? What steps are being taken at the State and Federal levels to reduce such incidents in religious buildings? What Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Bill is applied to religious buildings and the Church trustees? What specific OSH Law is directed towards enhancing safety in construction? What measures have been put in place to review and act upon the various comments, articles and professional advice that were offered after previous similar incidents in the past? It is obvious we are yet to learn from past Church building collapses.

Every year, a number of accidents occur in churches, church halls, churchyards and grounds. Not only does this cause fatality but also pain and suffering to those people who are injured, it has often resulted in serious disruption to the smooth running of the church and its various activities. Looking at the records of fatalities that have resulted from buildings collapse in Nigeria, it is obvious that collapse of religious building produces more casualties due to the huge number of people assembled at a particular time especially during weekly church services.

Those in the field of occupational safety and health know that risk is a combination of probability and consequence. Hence, the risk of fatality is inevitably high in a situation of high probability of huge number of worshippers during service when combined with the consequence of the building collapsing. This is not rocket science and it is expected that the Church Trustees and /or Leadership should know better and live up to their health and safety responsibilities. They have to be sure they have done everything to minimise the risks to church members, workers and visitors, and that everyone knows what to do if anything goes wrong.

Health and safety legislation applies to all places of religious worship centers. Therefore, Church Trustees or Management have a duty of care to ensure the safety of anyone who may visit the church, hall or churchyard for any purposes. These include paid employees, voluntary workers, regular members of the congregation, visitors and contractors who may be working on the buildings or in the churchyard. In case of gross negligence on the part of the church owner, trustees or management in discharging their health and safety legal obligations, then the regulators must hold them accountable for their actions irrespective of their religious affiliations or personal standing within the society.

Also, the injured person has the right to a claim against the church for damages in a civil action if he is able to successfully prove that the church owed him a duty of care; that the duty of care was breached; and that the injury was as a result of the breach. In addition, criminal prosecutions may be brought against individuals as well as the Church Council or Trustees by the health and safety enforcement agency. For instance, where a building has collapsed due to engagement of incompetent designer, contractors or inadequate allocation of sufficient time and resources for planning and organization of the church construction due to time constraints to meet up an organized church event deadline, then the owner of the church or management should be held liable for compromising the safety of church worshippers for their own benefits.

This is a clarion call to Church owners, Trustees of Churches, and the management of religious worship centers that accountability for health and safety lies with them, as it does to any other public building owner. This is a stewardship responsibility that must be taken seriously and pastorally motivated as Church members, visitors, hirers of the hall, employees and volunteers all need to be kept safe, whilst the Church carries out its worship, mission and ministry.

Where a Church has embarked on a building project, the Church’s leadership commitment to safety must be visible and safety should be a core value. The Church leadership must show this commitment by appointing competent principal designer and contractors, allocating sufficient time and resources at the planning stage of the project as well as providing relevant information to all persons/contractors on the project. Also, the Church should be able to provide evidence that a contractor/ subcontractor’s safety history and performance was considered during pre-qualification and not just costs or religious affiliations, beliefs and membership status with the Church. In addition, Church owners or Management team should have a good understanding of health and safety standards in addition to their conventional training received in pastoral school.   Safety is not simply common sense. Hence, the need for owners of religious worship centers to acquire basic HSE competency by undergoing training on the applicable regulations, hazards identification, and how to lead safely including dealing with emergencies.

Like I said in my previous article, the government must look into a sustainable strategy by enacting a proactive construction specific health and safety legislation in addition to building regulation.The regulations should identify all duty holders within a building construction project and clearly stipulate individual legal duties ranging from the building owners to the designers, contractors, subcontractors and other persons involved on the project. The law should apply to the whole construction process on all construction projects, from conceptualization to completion. For example, in the case of the Uyo building collapse, the client is the Church Owner and the regulation would place a duty on the Church trustees or owner to make suitable arrangements for managing a project, including making sure other duty holders are appointed as appropriate and that sufficient time and resources are allocated onto the project.

Furthermore, government building regulatory officers must now work closely with religious worship centre owners and other commercial building owners including designers, contractors and project planners to determine the most effective risk management strategies before a project begins and while it’s being built. It is important that an initial assessment is carried out by the building regulators at the pre-planning stage of a Church building project since every project is first built on paper. Safety begins with pre-planning, therefore, the regulatory agency must check that the methods to be used for the building construction is understood at the pre-planning stage and confirmed to be safe right from substructure, superstructure to fit out. They must ensure that controls to mitigate any foreseeable risks are integrated into the health and safety plan and request evidence from the Church that the appointed designer, when preparing or modifying designs, has taken all reasonable measures to eliminate, reduce or control foreseeable risks that may arise during construction, use and maintenance of the Church’s building.

Lastly, when it comes to safety, nobody works alone. It is a joint responsibility. Thus, all parties should be held accountable right from the Church head to the regulators who should have taken reasonable steps to give professional advice and where need be, exercise their right to serve prohibition notice before a catastrophic incident happens. This also applies to churches that occupy shared premises where there is a need to ensure effective collaboration of the occupiers and their landlords towards protecting lives and property.

Written By

Engr. Kayode V. Fowode CMIOSH, M.CSSE, MNSE

Chartered Health and Safety Practitioner

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