Chennai metro death shows holes in safety
Had officials of Nagarjuna Construction Company Ltd, a CMRL-contracted firm, on the site taken basic safety measures, motorists and the general public would not have been exposed to the possibility that they could, like 30-year-old software engineer L Giridharan, be crushed to death by a heavy iron girder falling from a section of scaffolding on the site.
The accident revealed shockingly lax safety practices not just in the construction of the metro but also in many other major construction projects in Chennai and other cities in the country. Wednesday’s accident, police said, took place because there was no fence around the site, which is mandatory for all major constructions.
Among the three officials police arrested for the accident were the site’s safety engineers M Dinesh, 23, of Vadaseri in Nagarcoil, and R Sudarsan, 21, of Salaiputhur in Kovilpatti near Thoothukudi, both barely out of college, both from small towns and both lacking the experience and exposure required for their company to give them the responsibility their jobs entailed.
Companies employ a significant number of the freshly minted 10 lakh engineers that the country produces every year, their inexperience notwithstanding, to monitor the safety of various industrial processes and major infrastructure projects, potentially endangering the lives of their colleagues and members of the public.
The accident highlighted the fact that no independent body exists to regulate safety practices in the country. This allows firms to hire, for cheap, novice engineers and delegate to them responsibilities too great for their age and limited experience.
Senior engineers say there should be an independent body to accredit engineers like there is for doctors and architects. “With no governing body to issue licenses, fresh graduates issue construction design safety certificates,” said Mark Selvaraj, an engineer who has worked with the state government as well as in the US.
He says it takes at least five years for a graduate to acquire professional engineer (PE) certification in the US. “Only a PE can approve designs or be in charge of site security,” Selvaraj said.
Government officials say they have no say in the hiring of private consultants. “We can specify the qualifications of team leaders but not those of their subordinates,” a state highways department engineer said. “Most private firms employ fresh graduates as it is cheaper. Senior engineers don’t leave their offices and give field work to freshers.”
For approval or any paper for a government project where a private contractor is involved, the signature of engineers from both sides is required. But Chennai Metro Rail Ltd has few engineers of its own and usually contracts work piecemeal to contractors, whose employees act as general consultants.
Selvaraj says there is an urgent need for the government to set up an independent body to certify engineers. “Lives are at stake depending on the job they do,” he said.