Grayston bridge: No cross-examination would be ‘gross oversight’

New commissioner, M&R advocate in screaming match.
The Grayston bridge collapse inquiry continues after numerous delays. Picture: Neil McCartney

An effort by Murray & Roberts (M&R) and other “protagonists” to prevent cross-examination of witnesses in the Department of Labour’s inquiry into the collapse of the Grayston bridge structure in October 2015 failed on Monday when the proceedings resumed.

Two people were killed and 19 injured when a temporary works structure collapsed onto the busy freeway on October 14, 2015. The construction work was done without interrupting the traffic and the scaffolding fell onto vehicles that were travelling underneath in mid-afternoon traffic.

Newly-appointed commissioner Phumudzo Maphaha on Monday ruled against the proposal by advocate Sias Reinecke SC acting for M&R, without even hearing other parties on the matter.

Reinecke suggested that comprehensive witness statements should be submitted on the basis of which parties could submit written questions, but no cross-examination should be allowed.

Maphaha however rejected this, saying it would be a “gross oversight” and “act of injustice” for him not to cross-examine witnesses, should he need further information.

“Cross-examination is not up for discussion,” Maphaha said.

Maphaha has taken over from his colleague Lennie Samuels who earlier presided over the inquiry, but had to step down due to health issues.

The inquiry is aimed at identifying who was responsible for the collapse in 2015 and making recommendations to prevent similar incidents. It has so far only sat for 17 days and only heard testimony from expert witnesses.

The main parties before the inquiry are Murray & Roberts as principle contractor and material supplier, its client the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), the JDA’s agent Royal HaskoningDHV and From-Scaff, the supplier of some of the scaffolding.

Certain individual employees of M&R have their own legal representatives and trade union Numsa represents others.

On Monday Roxana Le Roux, and environmental and health and safety consultant from Nemai Consulting, testified. Nemai did health and safety audits on site on behalf of the JDA.

From left: Roxana Le Roux, registered health and safety consultant for Nemai Consulting, who acted for the JDA on site, commissioner Phumudzo Maphaha and the DoL’s construction specialist Hilton Gansen.

From Le Roux’s testimony it was clear that the appointment letters and/or competency certificates of several key role players were outstanding during a site and documentary inspection on September 30, about two weeks before the incident. This included those for temporary works designer and a scaffolding erector.

Le Roux maintained that Form-Scaff was appointed as temporary works designer, but confirmed the appointment letter was outstanding and that she never saw an individual who fulfilled that role on site. In terms of the regulations the designer must “design, inspect and approve” the temporary works before use.

She testified that there were no records that the structure was regularly checked and findings reported.

Signage to indicate to workers whether it was safe to move onto the scaffolding was also outstanding, she testified.

She further confirmed that she saw no single, comprehensive design scetch of the whole structure or any plan to indicate the sequence in which the structure should be constructed.

Reinecke on behalf of M&R strongly objected when Maphaha asked Le Roux during cross-examination about “non-compliance” on site. He said that was asking the witness to draw a legal conclusion, which was the job of the commission or the courts.

What followed boiled down to a screaming match between Maphaha and Reinecke.

Maphaha told Reinecke he was “trying to run a commission on a wrong chair” and accused him of prohibiting him as commissioner to perform his functions. He raised Reinecke’s effort to prevent cross-examination and asked: “Why are you protecting this witness?”

Reinecke hit back saying he was protecting the procedure.

Maphaha then rephrased his question and the hearing proceeded.

Maphaha asked her why she failed to stop the activity on site in light of the safety risk to workers. She said there was no good reason to do so and maintained that workers were briefed about the risks during the daily “mini-risk assessment” meetings.

Willem le Roux, attorney for the JDA, asked her if she ever attended any such meetings. She confirmed that she did not, but relied on the attendance register to confirm that workers were properly briefed about the risks.

The hearing will proceed on Tuesday with the testimony of the temporary works supervisor Oliver Aadnesgaard and Hein Pretorius from M&R.

 

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This was an accident and in life accidents happen. That’s why one has insurance policies. I’m sure M&R are adequately covered to ensure the victims and their families are compensated. . It doesn’t bring a loved one back but then neither will a court case.

Sorry, you are 100% wrong on this one. Speak to a structural engineer – meaning a Pr.Eng who works in this field

A structural engineer is a bit like an economist – they will tell you about consequences if certain conditions prevail. Also structural engineers are not infallible – I have had certificates provided and still accidents happen. As Oaktree says lets find out what really happened to prevent in the future. Think this through as if it was a mining incident and what the outcomes on these events is and then evaluate

So this means it is okay in your opinion to kill someone as long as you have made provision for their funeral.

The problem is that these investigations can take years to resolve. The 1998 Injaka bridge collapse took about 12 years to complete its investigation and hearings, not helped by VKE, the engineers on the project, doing its best to impede the proceedings. Granted the bridge is considerably larger than the scaffolding but once the parties invite their respective experts, things tend to grind to a standstill.

Accidents like this hardly ever happens, yet it does, M&R are responsible contractors and so is Formscaff, probably the biggest formwork & scaffolding company in the world, they design and deck out thousands of m2 of formwork annually. This was an unfortunate accident. It is important that the cause of this accident to be determined to prevent any future accidents. To hold someone culpably responsible is pushing the law a bit too far. Thousands die in minibus taxi accidents, hardly any of the guilty parties are being prosecuted for culpable homicide. Victims are more interested in $$$$$.

The thousands who die in minibus taxis know full well the risks that they take once they embark. The workers who died, relied on the “Occupational Health and Safety Act” which imposes a duty on employers to provide and maintain a safe working environment for their employees. And that is the difference.

The reality is, we don’t live in a perfect world.

The purpose of an enquiry is to establish the truth about an accident: HOW it came to happen; WHY the supposed preventative measures and risks assessments that should have been in place failed to successfully perform the functions expected of them; and then, most important of all, make practical recommendations that will fix this type of problem happening again in the future.

An important consequence of an enquiry is that it’s often found that an accident was seldom truly a freak, that it was instead precipitated by negligence and or incompetence.

And THAT finding can have severe repercussions for the guilty parties – particularly when it was wilful.

The ONLY reason the lawyers are present is to protect their client against this finding. Establishing “the truth” is a mere incidental if there is any conflict to this hidden agenda.

I totally agree with the presiding officer that witnesses should be allowed to be cross-examined.

Defending lawyers don’t like this one bit because it’s the first step to eviscerating their carefully scripted witness statement if it’s more spin than truth.

End of comments.

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