Risky business


At this year’s England/New Zealand one-day cricket match in Auckland a man dressed as a rabbit was ejected from the ground for encouraging spectators to start a Mexican Wave.
When the security person was asked why, he said it was a health and safety issue. A true story, and a reflection on where this particular issue — health and safety that is, not rabbit costumes or one-day cricket — has got to.

While this new phenomenon of “the fun police” reducing our enjoyment of any public activity with even the slightest whiff of danger is of concern, much more concerning is the over-reaction of those at the top to more dangerous events.
The royal commission of enquiry into the Christchurch earthquakes and a review of the building code by the ministry have proposed a shorter and far-reaching approach to the required earthquake strengthening of older buildings.

Essentially, they propose a five-year time frame for local authorities to schedule, followed by a 10-year time frame for strengthening, of any notified existing building, to 33% of current code requirements.
Exceptions might be made for certain registered heritage structures, but not for the numerous character buildings lining the streets of our towns.
There is some potential for these requirements to be modified, depending on the hazard factor of a particular area. However, Christchurch was considered to have only half the potential earthquake hazard risk as our highest at risk urban area, Wellington, so that approach might not be seen as reliable.

Risk, unfortunately, can be a matter of opinion. In the case of Auckland a much higher but still very low risk would be a volcanic eruption rather than an earthquake. And that’s forgetting tsunamis and rising sea levels.
Each morning I either walk or drive along Ponsonby Road in Auckland. The streetscape is formed by two and three-storey buildings, typically with brick facades and extended, unreinforced decorative parapets.

The skyline provided by these decorative parapets is a reminder of my own and the area’s past.
Little clues are provided as to the previous uses of the older buildings. This one was clearly a cinema in a previous life, and that one was a butcher’s shop or bakery.
To me, and to many others, these historic clues are just as important as the overall visual appeal of the buildings themselves.

Very few, if any, of these facades would approach even 10% of current structural requirements. Is this of concern? Yes, to some extent it is, but in the case of the second Christchurch earthquake, only a small number of the fatalities were caused by the collapse of older buildings.
The majority of the personal devastation was caused by two buildings designed and constructed post-1970.

While even one fatality is too many, if Christchurch is to be a benchmark for structural strengthening then, viewed from a statistical viewpoint, buildings constructed post-1970 should be the principal target.

And that would be as much a nonsense as requiring building owners of all older buildings to strengthen or demolish all so-called at-risk buildings or building elements.
There are some affordable and sensible options for reducing the risk of the more tenuous bits of a building facade. When I was involved with the strengthening of Auckland’s Ferry Buildings we gained the approval of the Historic Places Trust to replace some of the less stable parapet elements in fibreglass.

Some purists might say “shock, horror”, but few, if any, enjoying the building today would have any inkling that the original elements had been replaced with lightweight copies.
However, replacing or strengthening a two or three-storey unreinforced brick facade would be much more demanding and expensive. In economic terms, possibly too expensive.
Some 10 or more years ago I was chatting to someone I met at a function in Taupo. He was what you might describe as an entrepreneur, but others might have less kindly called a “chancer.”

He told me how, a few years previously, he had realised there was a move towards improving building site safety, particularly on residential repairs and refurbishing.
So in his entrepreneurial way he went out and bought himself a scaffolding company. If he was to be believed, it quickly became his very own license to print money, with little or no effort by himself.

Now, there is no moral to this story, except perhaps that for every negative — in this case an increase in construction costs — there is a positive, in that someone will make money from any change in regulation.

The aimed for result was a reduction in workplace accidents, but bureaucracies tend to go just that bit too far. In the case of safety from falling regulations, the result is a doubling in the cost of simple repairs or paint jobs.

Before too long, ACC will be rejecting claims from people injured climbing a ladder to replace a light bulb, because the ladder used did not comply with OSH requirements.
I should point out that this is an exaggeration, as ACC does not take legality into account when considering claims. They will even compensate a burglar who falls through a window during an attempted robbery.

However, I wouldn’t be so certain about the future.