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“Builder fined after worker left with brain injuries after ladder fall” reads the headline on the NZ Herald’s website on May 26. The incident which occurred in March last year involved an employee falling off a ladder while dismantling a balcony 2.8m from the ground.
An investigation revealed that the ladder’s rubber non-slip feet were worn out which caused the ladder to slip forward and cause the fall. The builder responsible was fined $15,000 and ordered to pay more than $48,500 in reparations to the employee who suffered skull fractures and complex head injuries.
WorkSafe has revealed that the incident could have been avoided, had the builder purchased a new ladder or replaced the non-slip feet for a modest cost.
With the Health & Safety at Work Act (HSWA) in force since April this year, a new level of responsibility has been placed on every member of the New Zealand workforce to provide safe work environments.
While the act applies to all New Zealand industries, it is of particular relevance to the challenging environments of the hardware and construction industries where annual fatalities are more than double the average of other industries.
WORKING FROM HEIGHTS
One of the most obvious areas of scrutiny in recent years has been working from height. I spoke to several players providing height access solutions on the new laws and their impact on the industry.
“Falls from height in New Zealand are costing the industry an estimated $24 million,” says Easy Access Marketing Manager, Astrid Fisher.
“This is why the new Act has resulted in some self-regulation within the industry where some possibly larger and more risk-averse players in the construction sector are creating their own regulations to keep workers safe, including initiatives to prevent falls from height.”
Fisher goes on to explain that Easy Access has consulted with construction industry workers and health and safety professionals to minimise these risks.
Examples of the kind of practices now expected on site by some construction firms include: switching from traditional ladders to platform ladders when working more than 10 minutes, with longer durations requiring a platform or scaffold; requiring assurance that equipment has been manufactured to New Zealand standards and the clear display of a load rating of 150kg and the provision of roof edge protection on all building jobs where a worker can fall more than two metres.
This proactive response by the construction industry has also created business for other players in the height game like Mitek’s Richard Poole.
“Over the last year,” says Poole, “sales have been tracking well for our Combined Roof Edge protection & Working Platform scaffold system. It is a very competitive market and our system is unique and satisfies a certain portion of the temporary scaffold market.”
Relative newcomer Staffy Scaffolds has also been doing well from the new awareness of height safety, with Managing Director Daniel Grams working closely with WorkSafe to create affordable and customisable items like the Staffy Low Rider (see page 41).
“The demand is there now,” says Grams. “When I first started there were a bunch of older guys who had always done things a certain way and you would get just a handful of the younger generation jumping on board. But, now WorkSafe have run their height safety campaign for the last four years or so, pretty much everyone now knows what they need to do.”
HOW SAFE ARE WE?
Easy Access has also seen a significant rise in sales in the past year which is at least partly to do with a major uptake by the building industry of the right equipment to be in line with the new regulations.
I asked Managing Director Jeff Wearmouth if he felt it was getting safer out there on-site. “It is getting safer. We had 30% fewer claims for falls from height last year than the previous year but there’s still a long way to go as there are still people getting hurt just falling from low-level scaffolding.
“One of my concerns is the amount of product out there that’s incomplete. You might have a scaffold frame, a couple of braces but no handrails. They might have just one plank on it when there should be two platforms or they might be dragging it around on dirt with no base plates to support it,” he says.
Jeff Wearmouth also voices the frustrations of many in the industry about what he sees as a reducing number of contractors or builders who cut corners: “You still see people who are dodging the compliance regulations, undercutting price-wise the guys that aren’t and that’s a bit of an unfair situation.
“You’ve got to have edge protection around any roof above two metres high even if it’s a single storey, but you see guys in remoter areas who think they are going to get away with it, still not doing that. Well, that saves them 10 grand on the cost of building that house so the compliant builder is seriously disadvantaged by that.”
Colin Wilding of Fall-Pac New Zealand, supplier of safety bags and nets for construction, saw a similar change in the UK construction industry around 15 years ago and has a response to the naysayers on the added costs of upgrading safety measures.
“I think people in the marketplace are looking at this and thinking it’s just adding cost to the build. If they stopped and looked at it, some of these products are actually speeding up the build and saving money.
“And even those who are complying and have had 12 months without injury aren’t asking for a reduction in their ACC. So they aren’t looking at the bigger picture, they are just thinking ‘it’s costing me $800 to put this on and another $5000 to put scaffolding on’.”
Speaking of the bigger picture, many of the players spoken to for this feature pointed out that the losses that come about from workplace injuries are significant, not just to individual companies but the country as a whole, with some workplace injuries resulting in workers being out of work and on ACC payments for up to a year in recovery.
It can also be argued that the extra money spent on safety is feeding back into the country in the long run.
“The increase in safety measures has spawned an increase in growth for certain sectors within the country which is creating jobs, which pays people money, that they then put back into the system which means ultimately they can buy houses,” says Fall-Pac’s Colin Wilding.
PC GONE MAD OR JUST TEETHING TROUBLES?
That said, if work has to grind to a stop to meet new regulations it could be argued that uptake of the new regulations could reduce forward momentum, particularly in residential construction.
While most players seem to support the Health & Safety at Work Act in the wider scheme of things, there have been complaints about WorkSafe Inspectors taking a “black and white” approach to work site compliance in recent years.
“Under the new legislation the onus is on the company and the individual to ensure that they are compliant,” says Mitek’s Richard Poole. “Certainly there are instances where inspectors are stopping work and insisting that additional scaffolding is installed etc, but this was always going to happen.”
Daniel Grams of Staffy Scaffolds has had to field complaints from site first hand: “What we found in the beginning was WorkSafe hired their new inspectors, they had their crash course in what they had to police, and then they went out and cracked down on everything.
“Now we’ve had a lot of calls from customers saying ‘we’ve just had this person come around who says you have to have a toe board on every scaffold’, even one at 300mm off the ground that we use internally that becomes a trip hazard with a toe board on it.”
Despite these early teething issues, Grams is keen to stress WorkSafe has responded proactively to some of these concerns.
“Since those complaints I have found that WorkSafe has come around and is being more open-minded and applying a bit more common sense. There have always been grey areas and it depends on the environment and the person so WorkSafe is getting a lot more case specific rather than slapping the book on every job.”
Colin Wilding has also seen WorkSafe improves its approach to enforcement in recent years.
“A lot of emphasis has gone into training from WorkSafe, so I can’t knock them, but some of the inspectors have come into the job outside of a construction background and the problem is that, since they don’t know how to build a house, they have to be black and white because they have never done it.
“And they will learn, but at the end of the day they are not there to tell you how to do it but to police it if there is an issue.”
BREATHE IN – AIRBORNE CONTAMINANTS
The new regulations around working from height have made an obvious impact on the hardware channel but increased awareness around safety has made an impact on other areas as well.
I asked Intex’s Gerry Suckling if the build up to, and implementation of, the Health & Safety at Work Act had made a difference to the company’s bottom line in the last 12 months.
“We have seen a significant increase in enquiry and sales in our range of work safety products, the Zipwall Dust Barrier system and Starmix Dust Extractors. People are becoming more aware of what the health issues are around dust and how they can be affected. We are also being asked to increase our range of general PPE,” says Suckling.
“So there has been a good uptake of the act from what we’ve seen so from now it will be a process of increasing compliance as the trade become aware of what can actually happen to them or anyone else on their team.”
Regarding the complaints from the construction industry of unrealistic enforcements by WorkSafe inspectors, Gerry Suckling is diplomatic in his response.
“What we need is a dynamic partnership of common sense and compliance between our trades and the WorkSafe inspectors and I think we need to have a balanced view of these new regulations and how they apply practically to the work site.”
A key issue going forward for Suckling is ensuring the continued education of the workforce on potential hazards, how they are managed and the dangers of using inferior products to manage them. Suckling himself admits to being a recent convert.
“Speaking for myself I just completed an OSH NZQA Level 3 course which has given me a paradigm shift on work safety. It formed a new core value: ‘Safety – Getting you safe home to your family each night’.
“Ask yourself: ‘Do I want to be in a position where I have to call my employee’s partner or family and tell them that their partner, family member has been injured, maimed or, worse, killed?’”
For a different perspective on health and safety, I spoke to Martin Carlyle CEO of Damar Industries, manufacturer of dangerous goods in the form of solvent based chemicals and aerosols.
For Carlyle, the Health & Safety at Work Act has had little impact on how he runs his business as the company has already spent significant capital getting itself up to speed.
“As a player, we are ahead of the industry in terms of legislation. Our industry body did a survey on our industry about 3-4 years ago and it had fairly low compliance regarding its own health and safety. That has improved since then and we have taken a leadership stance on that and invested 20 million dollars over the last few years to be 100% compliant.
In fact, Carlyle’s main concern going forward is not for his industry but for the end users and retailers stocking dangerous goods.
“My concern for retailers is how they are going to manage the volumes and separation of dangerous goods in store. If you have a look at the regulations, most stores in the hardware sector are going to have to take a hard look at themselves and ask ‘Am I compliant?’ And there will be a rude awakening for some because as WorkSafe does start implementing this stuff they are going to demand stores meet compliance requirements.
“For instance, there are some small stores stocking wide ranges so they have various chemicals and aerosols all in a small space. And some of these may need 8 metres separation between them. But, if your store is only eight metres wide, how do you manage that?” Carlyle asks.
“That’s why I have just invested four million dollars upgrading our site for some additional dangerous goods storage because I can see it coming that the stores will say ‘I’m not allowed to stock it so you will have to hold it and ship it to me as and when I need it’.”
Carlye has already seen the transport industry struggle with the new regulations with Mainfreight and Post Haste now having to pick up different chemicals at different times rather than together.
Bearing this in mind, Carlyle points out that, in a worst-case scenario, a mix of Class 5 pool chemicals with Class 3 solvents combined with say a spill of brake fluid in the back of a tradies van could create a similar situation to the explosions seen in Chinese factories last year, albeit on a far smaller scale.
“Basically, there are lots of chemical incompatibilities between chemical classes and that is why segregation and chemical awareness is essential to our industry and definitely required.”
SAFER IN THE LONG RUN
Judging by the comments made by players in the market, the general feeling in the channel is that the industry is getting safer and that safe business is good business. And while implementing the new regulations may not always be a smooth process, we will all be better for it in the long run.
To make sure your workplace is up to speed, check out the Health & Safety at Work Act at WorkSafe (http://www.business.govt.nz/worksafe/hswa).