My Thoughts on Technology and Jamaica: Why Collapse due to BSJ's Faulty Block makers may occur spontaneously without an Earthquake

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Why Collapse due to BSJ's Faulty Block makers may occur spontaneously without an Earthquake

Looks like those fly-by-night block makers are sitting on a House of Cards.

The BSJ (Bureau of Standards Jamaica) is now taking action against makers of faulty hollow concrete blocks as reported in “BSJ Steps Up Activities against Faulty Block Makers”, published December 17, 2015 By Latonya Linton, The Jamaica Information Service

 This was revealed at a Press Conference held on Wednesday December 16th 2015 at the BSJ Winchester Road offices. Apparently they've been tracking faulty hollow concrete blocks for some time as noted in the article “Poor Quality Building Blocks A Major Concern – BSJ”, published Tuesday December 8, 2015 by Christopher Serju, The Jamaica Gleaner.  

The BSJ had conducted islandwide inspections in September 2015 of some 209 block makers islandwide. During these inspections they sampled and tested 234 block samples with 10 blocks per block size in each sample specifically:

1.      8 inch hollow concrete blocks
2.      6 inch hollow concrete blocks
3.      4 inch hollow concrete blocks 

To their surprise, the non-compliance rate was alarmingly high. The BSJ discovered 83% non-compliance i.e. block maker's hollow concrete blocks below the required standard. That translates to 8 of every 10 block maker's hollow concrete blocks being below the required standard. By November 2015, however, it had improved to 60.53% non-compliance.

These blocks are used for making houses, which can collapse and kill Jamaicans during an earthquake as pointed out by BSJ Director of the regulatory division, Orine Henry: “If and when there is an earthquake, and these blocks are used, the structural integrity of the buildings will be at great risk. Even without an earthquake, the daily live and dead load that is applied to the structure will cause the structure to fail”.

The penalties for inferior quality are quire severe. Under the Standards Act, the Block maker guild of making and selling faulty hollow concrete blocks can face $3 million and 12 months imprisonment.

So what caused the sudden increase in non-compliance?

BSJ and Block makers - Why building made with failed hollow concrete blocks can collapse spontaneously

The BSJ problem with block maker is more than just simply poor hollow concrete blocks. The Stats as it relates to qualified block makers is also equally alarming:

1.      300 block makers in the BSJ Database
2.      65 are registered by the Bureau

The 209 block makers tested islandwide in September 2015 represent 70% of these block makers on the BSJ database, meaning that a lot of them were selling and still are selling these sub-standard hollow concrete blocks. Worse, there is no publicly available listing of these block makers, as the block maker can take the BSJ to court for defamation of character.

However, more troubling is the fact that the six-inch block are failing compressive-strength test to quote BSJ Director of the regulatory division, Orine Henry: “The blocks are failing the compressive-strength test. The minimum for strength test is 7 Mega Pascal (mpa) (1000psi), and the blocks that failed were below the 7mpa. The average compressive-strength tests for the blocks that failed is 3.4mpa”.

Translation: blocks that crumble like sand the higher you build your building. So the slightest shaking from an earthquake or even a strong gust of wind would cause such a building to literally crumble like powder, smothering the occupants to death.

So what's causing the hollow concrete block failures? According to the BSJ Scientists, these are the reasons:

1.      Insufficient cement to aggregate ratio
2.      Improper curing methods (blocks not kept shaded after and kept moist after the first 24 hours)
3.      High percentage of water added to the cement and aggregate mixture
4.      Malfunctioning of machine used for the melding of the block (machine not compacting properly)
5.      Poor-quality aggregates used in the concrete mixture

So albeit the cement was of high quality, the aggregate wasn't good and too much water was added. in addition after being formed by the block making machine, a dice that can be easily procured, the blocks were left in the sun, when exposure to sunlight made then dry too quickly, developing internal fractures that weakened their structure severely.

This means that building made with cheaper six-inch hollow concrete blocks that came from block makers that failed the BSJ’s tests can collapse spontaneously, no earthquake required!

Ok, so what can you do against these Block makers?

BSJ cannot take action - Homeowner's house has to collapse before Block Makers prosecuted

Apparently not much.

The FTC, with the help of the BSJ, can only take action after discovering the problems with the blocks as noted by Executive director of the (FTC), David Miller: “On the face of it, it seems to us that there is sufficient information out there to bring a matter successfully in the court against the block maker”.

To this end, they've begun another round of inspections islandwide to quote Director of the Regulatory Division at the BSJ, Orine Henry: “We have been going to construction sites, hardware stores, everywhere we can find block makers, we have been targeting them. If persons are operating in their backyard, our team might not necessarily know of those persons, but then again, we ask persons to provide us with information”.

They also started their intention to get a mobile Block testing unit, which albeit clever, indicates how difficult it is to identify faulty non-compliant block makers and take action, especially in Montego Bay to quote Acting Executive Director of the BSJ, Maurice Lewin: “We are also having discussions surrounding a mobile unit so that we can be more responsive. Part of the challenge you will see is that the block makers don’t necessarily have the wherewithal to test their blocks and they have to rely on us. If we can have a mobile testing facility, then we can provide support for them to make a sample and we test it …and so one will meet the standards before they go and make an entire batch of block”.

Even then, any legal action is based on a complaint to the FTC (Fair Trading Commission) as noted in the article “BSJ Targets Block Makers With Inferior Products”, published Thursday December 17, 2015 by Edmond Campbell, The Jamaica Gleaner.  

FTC needs you to complain about faulty Blocks – Procedure error place FTC in trouble

The FTC cannot take unilateral action.

Even then, they’d have to prove the block maker is at fault along with the contractor, to quote Executive director of the (FTC), David Miller: “Therefore, that's a matter that we would proceed to the courts with to obtain some kind of redress, not only for the consumer, but [for] some kind of sanction against the block maker”.

Put another way, a house would have to collapse spontaneously in order to take action.

Assuming you survived the collapse of your house, this could serve as the evidence to build a case. Even then, under the Standards Act, the BSJ would have to have given the block makers ninety (90) days notice to comply before taking action to become compliant.

Given that 70% of Kingston would be flattened by an earthquake as noted in the article “Earthquake fright”, published Tuesday, March 02, 2010 by Patrick Foster, The Jamaica Observer it may well be that most of them were built using below standard techniques and building materials i.e. faulty blocks from faulty block makers.

Also, the householder would had to prove that the reason why the house experiencing structural problems is because of the blocks and not any faulty construction practice, such as improper use of cement mixture or other violation of the JS 217: Jamaica National Building Code.

Good to note here that the New National Building Code of Jamaica is still being drafted by the BSJ as noted in the article “BSJ Drafts New Codes To Police Building Maintenance” published Friday September 18, 2015, by Tameka Gordon, The Jamaica Gleaner.

But you can still take legal action using the JS 217: Jamaica National Building Code, which does cover such cases of building malpractice, so to speak, on the part of the contractor, who can also become liable for the collapse of your house.

No spontaneous building collapses – Insurance doesn’t cover such Structural failures of buildings

So far this hasn't happened yet, which is why Executive director of the (FTC), David Miller said quote: “The Fair Trading Commission has not received any complaints but we are aware of the situation and we are gathering the necessary information on a broad scale. If specific complaints come in, we can gather that specific information from that consumer and from the block maker, who the complaint is brought against”.

Otherwise if the BSJ takes unilateral action, they may find themselves, making a Procedural error in the same situation as the BCJ (Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica) did against the illegal cable operators as explained in my blog article entitled “Jamaican Cable Providers get 3 month Extension – How to win General Election 2017 and Why OPM can overrule @BCJamaica for Procedural Error”.  

The BCJ in that situation was forced to give the illegal Cable operators a three (3) month extension or ninety (90) days after it became apparent that they failed to follow the procedures it relate to giving them ninety (90) days prior notice.

So that’s the situation that the FTC would be facing with the Block makers. Worse, most insurance policies does not cover the sudden collapse of a building; it has to have collapsed during a natural disaster such an earthquake or hurricane.

Thus, to avoid such a scenario the BSJ will have to await the first collapse of a building and a complaint from the home owner. Once called in, they would do a forensic assay on the block to identify the block maker from their database. Then in concert with the lawyers from the FTC, they could then take legal action on the behalf of the owner of the house but not before.

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