CROSS Safety Report
Steelwork connection design
This report is over 2 years old
A reporter is concerned that on small domestic projects, steelwork fabricators are appointed who do not have the expertise to design connections or prepare fabrication drawings.
Key Learning Outcomes
For civil and structural design engineers:
Connections can often be the weak link in structures and attention to detail is required. These should be designed and detailed by a suitably qualified and experienced engineer.
Careful consideration is required for connections, 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
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A reporter was particularly interested in report 378 on the design of steelwork connections. The reporter has worked as project engineer on many projects and has also worked for steelwork fabricators designing connections for them on hundreds of projects. It is undoubtedly true, in their experience, that steelwork designs sent by project engineers to contractors are sometimes deficient. However, on commercial projects, the responsibilities of the parties are usually defined by National Structural Steelwork Specification (NSSS) and the parties usually make some effort to work to this document.
Of greater concern to the reporter is what happens on small domestic projects. Although the architect may refer to NSSS in his specification, they frequently award contracts to small builders whose steelwork fabricators do not have the expertise to design connections or prepare fabrication drawings.
The architect may also not provide enough information on his drawings to enable the steelwork to be set out or the levels agreed (hence some of the connections cannot be designed and some of the fabrication drawings cannot be prepared). On such projects they frequently find that:
- although they ask to see fabrication drawings, none are received, and;
- they are not invited to site to check the as-built structure
What often happens is that they are asked to design critical moment connections and the rest is sorted out on site between the architect and the builder without any reference to the structural engineer - obviously a highly unsatisfactory situation. This is presumably driven by the desire of the architect to save costs and the reporter’s firm only then gets involved if something has gone wrong. The reporter would be interested to know if other engineers are worried about such issues.
Expert Panel Comments
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This illustrates very well the situation of a safety-critical industry being allowed to operate in a piece-meal manner. Indeed, the architect is open to legal action should there be a significant problem involving harm to persons, for not identifying the hazard of inappropriate delegation, and for failing to engage a competent constructor.
It is prudent for the structural engineer to ensure his appointment is fully qualified, but even so, he also has obligations to identify hazards and mitigate risks (e.g. by recommending suitable supervision) arising from his design, and pass on this information.
As regards site visits, a key attribute to safety is confirming that what parties thought was being built was actually built. The client should employ a steelwork contractor with the right skills to design and fabricate the steelwork. BCSA’s website can assist parties in identifying a steelwork contractor with the correct range of technical and commercial skills required for the job.
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