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Talking Turkey

Many feelings were invoked by the aftermath of the Turkish earthquake: awe at the quake's destructive power; pity for the victims; admiration for the relief workers; and anger and disgust at the corner-cutting of the Turkish builders (see News).

But it also encourages another reaction, largely unacknowledged, in their minds of UK engineers - smugness.

'There's little for us to learn,' they conclude. 'It could never happen here.' And, of course, barring a seismological miracle, it couldn't.

But anyone who reckons that the absence of regularly occurring natural disasters is an excuse for complacency should read the Health and Safety Executive's report on the 1995 Ashford office building collapse (see News).

According to the HSE, the collapse resulted from an example of 'cowboy building supreme' during the office's refurbishment in 1970.

The engineer involved in the work was considered to have discharged his duty by providing accurate drawings - which the contractor did not follow. But we will never know if that engineer had his suspicions about the contractor's competence but did nothing or too little about them.

The work of the Government's Cowboy Builders Working Group clearly demonstrates that the problem has not gone away. Its report, published this week, gives hope that its efforts should mitigate the threat, but it will not end it.

Equally, reaction to the HSE report from building control officers suggests that they will not be able to shoulder the whole burden of the extra vigilance called for.

Typically, engineering firms involved in minor building projects tend to be similarly small. They tend not to have the time or resources to keep an eye on builders.

However, one of their advantages is local knowledge. If they are worried, but can't act on those concerns then a word of warning to the client or the building control office (allowing them to better prioritise inspections) could potentially prove a life-saver.

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