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Written by
on 21 February 2018


The collapse of a department store building 28 years ago still has lessons for construction contractors today.

The Sampoong Department Store collapse is one of the worst peacetime disasters in modern history.

When the shopping centre fell, 502 were people killed, making It the deadliest building collapse until the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York.

The collapse was a disaster waiting to happen. Corners were cut at several points during the design and construction of the building, and the final structure was never fully fit for purpose.

But over the course of eight years, a number of other mistakes were made that contributed to the eventual collapse – and massive loss of life. Here’s what your business can learn.

Not all safety measures are safe

In order to save on construction costs, the Sampoong Centre had been built with concrete pillars that were too thin to support five storeys. Worse still, the owners of the complex were already aware of this before construction started.

At some point during the building’s lifespan, it was decided to install fire shields around escalators to prevent fires from spreading floor to floor. In order to install the shields, however, contractors were forced to cut into the inter-floor support columns, weakening them further still.

Investigators later ruled that this action was one of several contributing factors in the building’s collapse. Clearly, not all safety measures are inherently safe – and contractors must exercise caution and common sense before blindly following instructions that may compromise the Integrity of their project.

Use the right tools

The Sampoong Centre was also fatally flawed at roof level. Management had installed a 45-tonne air conditioning unit – four times the design limit of the structure.

Following noise complaints from neighbours, the air conditioning units were moved to another corner of the building. Rather than lift the machinery with a crane, the units were dragged across the roof, further compromising structural integrity. Cracks were later spotted directly under the air conditioners – and the vibrations caused by the machines caused the cracks to widen further, eventually resulting in failure of the columns and causing upper floors to collapse pancake-like.

What can we learn from the incident? The building may have been fatally flawed at the point of construction, but dragging the air conditioner units across the roof hastened its collapse. Had the machinery been lifted (as best practice demands), the columns may not have collapsed in the same catastrophic fashion.

Don’t be afraid to walk away

Unfortunately, the Sampoong Centre was flawed from the outset, as management continually ignored the concerns of contractors. Poor decisions about materials, structural design and a willful disregard for safety led up to the deaths of 502 people.

Tragically, management had been warned there were several serious problems – and those contracting firms who raised issues were typically fired. But when it comes to matters of health and safety, construction firms have a legal duty to uphold best practice as part of their commitment to protecting the general public.

There is no shame in walking away from a project that has the potential to kill – and firms should not hesitate to whistleblow where appropriate.

Here in the UK, we like to pretend that a Sampoong-like incident could never happen – but where profit overrides public safety, there is always a risk. By applying these Insights, however, your firm can help avoid contributing to a potential disaster on your own projects.

If you’d like more help and advice with any of these suggestions, Veritas Consulting is always on hand to help. Please get in touch to learn more.

A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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