Editorial: A crisis of building blocks
Its potential consequences are almost too frightening to contemplate, which is why the Bureau of Standards Jamaica (BSJ) must provide further particulars about the manufacture of hollow building blocks in the island and hopefully assuage Jamaicans that the structural integrity of their homes and other buildings is not severely compromised.
People, it would seem, have real cause for concern.
Earlier this year, the BSJ announced an agreement with the Jamaica Block Makers Association (JBMA) for the development and monitoring of standards in that sector. It was widely assumed that that was part of an effort of both agencies to formalise regulatory systems in an increasingly professional environment. The BSJ, on its website, lists 66 block manufacturers as registered with the agency, with a number of them marked as being licensed. The distancing remains unclear.
What, however, is worrying are recent data issued by the BSJ about the quality of blocks manufactured in Jamaica. At the beginning of December, the bureau disclosed that over a three-month period, it tested blocks made by 200 manufacturers and found that more than "eight of ten" of them have not met its standards. Then, last week at a press conference, BSJ officials said there was an improvement - 63 per cent of all the blocks tested for a period up to the end of November did not reach its minimum quality.
Before anyone celebrates, the improvement did not extricate Jamaica from potential crisis. For, looked at another way, it meant that only 37 per cent of the blocks manufactured in Jamaica and tested by the BSJ met that agency's engineering and stress requirements and, therefore, were of a quality suitable for construction.
What is not immediately clear from the available data is what proportion of the hollow concrete blocks used in Jamaica are products of JBMA members and if they accounted for any of the substandard ones tested by BSJ. The laws of probability suggest that some may have been, even if it was a proportionately small amount.
We welcome the effort at public and consumer awareness by the BSJ, the Fair Trading Commission, the Consumer Affairs Commission, and the declared intention of the standard authorities to go after the non-compliant manufacturers. But there is need for something more. And the right of civil action by the purchasers against non-compliant manufacturers is not sufficient in the circumstances.
People want to know how safe their premises are. Is it that the BSJ's standard requirements are such as to accommodate even the most adverse stress that would be placed on Jamaica-compliant blocks? In that event, non-compliant ones may not be so bad. Further, it would be useful if people were advised about how to test completed structures to determine their integrity and what can be done to make them safe in the event that they were built with inferior blocks.
This, we appreciate, is unlikely to be a significant issue for large, sophisticated developers with their access to architects and civil engineers and who would less likely be victims of the manufacturers of substandard material.
But there is also a culture of construction informality in Jamaica that accounts for a large number of homes and other buildings, which may need shoring up.