Effective policing of construction works is vital if safety standards are to be improved, which is why the Buildings Department set up a watchdog group supported by tougher on-site supervision standards. A site monitoring section was created in October 1995 in the wake of several high-profile construction accidents, including the Wing On demolition site disaster when six pedestrians were killed by falling debris. The intention was to form a proactive group of building experts to check sites for dangerous or substandard construction. Paul Pang Tat-choi, senior structural engineer, said initially there was one chief officer heading the team of structural engineers and building surveyors, some of chief or senior rank. Four inspection teams now cover Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, New Territories East and New Territories West, including Chek Lap Kok airport. 'It has worked quite well. General site safety conditions have improved. There is more awareness in the building industry,' Mr Pang said. Part of the reason is that teams make regular inspections at sites in their district. 'We aim to make three visits to a site in a year,' he said. There are also random checks by senior staff who re- visit sites previously inspected by junior staff to ensure the department's own appraisal standards are being met. With an average of 1,450- 1,500 construction sites under way at any one time, the section has to be focused, deploying its limited resources to check those developments considered to be most dangerous. Consequently, the main targets are demolition sites, where there is an ever-present risk of debris falling from a building; excavation and lateral support works which could collapse; foundation construction; and superstructure work where there is a danger from falling objects. 'When we see problems, we send out advice letters. For more serious and urgent problems, we can issue a cease work order and/or we prosecute,' Mr Pang said. The order is the department's ultimate sanction and requires work to stop immediately until faults are rectified. The department works closely with Labour Department construction site inspectors. And although the latter targets unsafe working practices, they also keep a lookout for construction defects and tip off the site monitoring section if they believe work is being carried out in a dangerous manner. Equally, the site monitoring team will inform Labour Department inspectors if they believe site workers are personally at risk. If either department issues a cease work or suspension notice, they will fax a copy to the other. This is based on the assumption that if there are serious faults in one area, such as worker safety, they are often replicated in others, including construction methods. The site monitoring system is a major boost with the phased implementation of the supervision plan system supported by the introduction of a technical manual setting out construction procedures for any site. This document details the principles, supervision requirements and the content of supervision plans. Under recent legislation an authorised person must lodge a supervision plan with the Building Authority prior to or at the same time as the application to start building works. If no plan is lodged, the Building Authority may refuse permission. The site supervision scheme requires staff working for authorised persons, registered structural engineers and contractors to be technically competent. They must also hold certificates as proof of competency. About 370 people have received interim certificates since the scheme was launched last December. A pass rate of about 90 per cent has so far been achieved. Mr Pang said about 3,000 were eligible to become technically competent people. The scheme initially covered demolition works but has been extended to include site formation, foundations and excavation. Later, it will include other categories. It requires five grades of technically competent people who must make regular site visits to check on working practices. A log book has to be kept for Buildings Department inspections showing that the visits were made, whether faults were found and what corrective action had been ordered. The department must also be informed if problems were discovered and remedial work was taken. Everyone who is considered technically competent must hold qualifications showing they understand the construction process. For general site foreman and specialist workers this could be difficult because many have worked in the industry for a long time and have years of experience but they lack formal qualifications. To get over this hurdle, the Buildings Department has organised a series of courses with the Construction Industry Training Authority and the Vocational Training Council. The first stage, which runs to December 22 next year, requires foremen, specialist workers and site agents to obtain an interim certificate in site safety supervision and construction safety. This entails a 40-hour course with an examination at the end. Further stages will be held for each grade between December next year and December 2002 in subjects including construction supervision, specialist works and, for site agents, administration and management. Candidates are expected to gain a final certificate.