CROSS Safety Report
Ceiling collapse in cinema due to fixing failures
This report is over 2 years old
A number of fixings of a ceiling support system pulled out setting up a cascade reaction such that the whole ceiling fell down.
Key Learning Outcomes
For civil and structural design engineers:
Connections can often be the weak link in structures and attention to detail is required
Careful consideration is required for fixings, particularly at interfaces between different materials. The role of tolerances should not be overlooked.
An attribute of safety is to assure that the design is not disproportionately vulnerable to minor error
For construction professionals:
Quality control and competent supervision on site can ensure ceiling systems are installed in accordance with the design
Fixings should be installed in accordance with the manufacturer’s specifications
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A cinema had several separate auditoria. Each had a ceiling consisting of a metal grillage supporting plaster board and on top of that was network of cables and ventilation ducts. The net loading was quite heavy at about 70 kg/m2.
The load transfer system between separate elements was complicated but the whole system was held up on straps fixed to the underside of a concrete soffit by a mixture of shot fired nails and proprietary drilled in sockets. The strap top was bent over at 900mm to allow the fixings to be made through the horizontal part and consequently the fixings were subject to direct load and bending.
Some of the fixings pulled out in one of the auditoria (both shot fired nails and drilled in fixings) setting up a cascade reaction such that the whole ceiling fell down. Inspections were carried out in the adjoining auditoria and it was found that the fixings there had partially failed. The collapse occurred at night so no one was injured.
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Expert Panel Comments
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This and other similar reports demonstrate a concerning trend of progressive collapse mechanisms in public buildings where there is a high probability of casualties in the event of failure. In each case there has been a fault, or a combination of faults, in the design, selection or installation of fixings, and a lack of appreciation of the magnitude of the dead loads from acoustic ceilings.
Inspection of fixings
These would have been compounded because it is not usually possible to inspect the fixings after installation. The danger of falling ceilings is not new; there is old cinematographic legislation that was brought in because of failures with lath and plaster ceiling fixings. The Home Office document ‘Recommendations on Safety in Cinemas 1955’, and which is still relevant says: ‘Ceilings shall be in such a condition as not to cause a danger to persons visiting the premises’.
Ceilings shall be in such a condition as not to cause a danger to persons visiting the premises.
There are other examples where the failure of a single component must not compromise the whole; for example, cable stayed bridges are designed so failure of one stay does not cause the bridge to come down. Similarly, what is needed for heavy ceilings is a robust design with a sensible appreciation by designers of the importance of what might appear to be trivial structural detail.
There must be a sound design tracing load paths back to a solid platform with a responsible person in charge. It may be that guidance there should be provided in Part A of the building regulations in a similar manner to the existing guidance on cladding systems.
CROSS has been concerned about fixings of various kinds for some time and these collapses illustrate very well the ‘3Ps’ promulgated by CROSS to illustrate the wide causes of failure:
Those involved exhibiting a lack of structural engineering competence such that the safety critical implications of the work were not recognised.
Lack of attention given to the procurement of the work and in particular to ensure that one competent party is responsible for the overall design. A failure to appreciate that these support systems are just as important as primary structural members. Lack of supervision and checking of installations.
Specification (or choice) of the wrong product i.e. not fit for purpose.
Fixing failures such as the 1981 Hyatt Hotel walkway collapse in which 114 people died demonstrate the magnitude of tragedies that can unfold.