construction safety

What do Easter show bags and construction deaths have in common? In NSW they share the same minister. The Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation. But no one in the construction industry could share the same level of confidence that was afforded 368 show bags at the Easter Show this year.

Every day serious breaches in construction safety compliance can be observed. And despite the current ministerial crackdown on construction safety non-compliance, the same “we don’t give a damn” attitude is played out by contractors every day. They don’t give a damn about their workers or the public.

Here are four actions the minister could take to show he is serious about construction safety – because it’s pretty clear that SafeWork NSW under its current mandate is not up to the task of changing the attitude of contractors who simply thumb their noses at the law and, seemingly, at impotent SafeWork officers who achieve little or no impact.

  • Implement a SafeWork reporting app that enables construction safety breaches to be instantly reported and connected to a real-time dashboard to track action
  • Introduce a new Safety Award for the whistleblowers who report the most impactive construction safety breach every month
  • Set up a live SafeWork NSW YouTube channel to show examples of safety breaches and the actions taken by the agency’s officers including notices and fines
  • Appoint me the chief construction safety compliance inspector for 12 months

It’s time to walk the talk and move past the excuses and accommodation of the industry’s declared shortcomings. It’s time to make it clear that the law is the law.

Two weeks ago this project on Victoria Road in Sydney was visible to all. Issues include no hand rails, no hard hats, no protection on reinforcement rods and inadequate overhead protection for falling objects.

This project is one of the many hundreds where blatant safety disregard is shown every day. Hundreds in the community report similar complaints to SafeWork NSW. The process for reporting seems pretty sensible. Concerned citizens can either report incidents by calling 131050 or by filing the details at one is assured: “Safety starts with you.” The initial response is prompt; it is automated.

The communications saga regarding this project complaint is a matter of record.

In this instance the complaint was made on Friday 23 March. The matter had also been covered in more detail on my LinkedIn site – titled: “Is NSW really in the midst of a Ministerial construction safety blitz?”

This is the second matter I have reported to SafeWork NSW in the last year. I reference this article because it was obviously observed by an official of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU). On the following Monday 26 March, I was told by SafeWork NSW that the unions were successful in calling for an officer to attend the site that day. This would have been a separate complaint to the one lodged by me. I am unaware of what resulted.

Over the following week I called the customer experience desk at SafeWork to follow up my complaint. On the 27 March the assigned field officer called me. He is a different officer to the one who responded to the CFMMEU call-out. This process begins with what the agency calls “triaging” the complaint. The officer responding to my complaint was unsure of the project location. He had not seen the photos that had accompanied my complaint. But I was assured that these were attached on the agency’s Trim system. The assigned officer called me back on the 29 March and left a message. I have emailed him and left messages since.

Two weeks later, after repeated calls to follow up this matter, I emailed SafeWork NSW. I reported that despite repeated recorded requests for information regarding the action taken by SafeWork NSW, none had been forthcoming. My email included the images below taken on the April 5 and 6. There was no visible change in safety attention on the site.

If only this site was an Easter Show bag. But, it’s not a laughing matter.

To add context, the following comment was made to me on my initial LinkedIn posting by the executive officer, safety & risk of a major contractor association:

“I appreciate your very real concerns; however, individuals do have a primary duty of care and a responsibility to ensure the safety of themselves and to ensure their actions do not generate additional risks or harm to others. During this unprecedented building construction industry (BCI) economic boom in NSW and cognisant of the 44 per cent of apprentices who do not complete their trade, tens of thousands senior trades people retiring annually – taking with them their valuable inherent knowledge of the specifics of the industry – may I perhaps suggest directing our educated insights to increase positive safety awareness in an attempt to help a dwindling workforce struggling to supply resources at every level.

“Rationally, the regulator faces the same problem the rest of the industry does – a massive skills shortage. Commentary of a vexatious nature maybe better directed at harnessing the voluminous numbers of young people and legitimate immigrants, advocating the positives of a trade qualification future. Personally, it is encouraging to receive a continued growing number of enquiries pertaining to positive safety outcomes.”

At this stage, I am left wondering: what do accommodating platitudes of this nature have to do with the fact there are fundamental breaches of the law occurring here? I am also bewildered that my commentary could be described as vexatious, or that the regulator could be rationally excused by having the same skills shortage as reported for the industry.

It seems to me that the only way to turn this situation around is for SafeWork NSW to do its job. It is failure by regulators that underpin the community’s increasing loss of faith in public institutions to represent the public interest. Would a judge at a coronial enquiry accept the above rationale to explain to the parents of a killed apprentice that this was acceptable?

My sense is that a post like the one reported here, was no more than a sop to the minister to say, “It’s okay, mate, we understand as long as you do.” I hold no candle out for the CFMMEU, whose behaviour and demands are making construction more uncompetitive every day. But in this instance the CFMMEU seems more able to attract WorkSafe’s attention than a call by an ordinary member of the public. This seems at odds with both the NSW government and employer associations who decry such union intervention, claiming they will manage. In this instance the impact of the CFMMEU call out, my complaint and whatever SafeWork NSW did or did not do, has had no impact on this project or others I have referred to the Agency.

The construction industry continues to lack a level of safety assurance afforded to this year’s Easter show bags. It’s interesting that the minister fails to demonstrate the same level of visibility when a serious construction safety accident or death occurs. And it is a tragedy that the sorts of safety breaches reported here are not treated more seriously when over 50 per cent of construction deaths and injury occur from falls or objects falling from height.

I have never been more serious about the four actions suggested here. This year it is 30 years since we completed the construction of Australia’s new Parliament House. I was the construction director. Over 10,000 constructors worked on this project over its duration. None were killed. Yes, that result is as much by the good hand of god as it was our actions onsite, but there was an unambiguous daily rule on that project – we all go home safety tonight.

Minister, it is time to step up. And how about a new award for 2019: whistleblower?

Adjunct Professor David Chandler is construction practitioner and industry engagement lead at Western Sydney University’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction.

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