Aussie’s falling from height solution practical and affordable

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In my June column, I raised questions about the practicality and affordability of the current approach to falling from heights that is being imposed with well-meaning, but misguided passion on our residential construction sites.

I have since been overwhelmed with messages of support from that article. It obviously touched a raw nerve for many of you, and by the number of stories of pedantic and inconsistent enforcement that were relayed to me, things are not in great shape.

There is no question that health and safety on construction sites is highly important, and risk should be minimised wherever practically possible. However, there is a point where punitive measures reach a tipping point as to the cost benefit they produce.

The current obsession the authorities have with trying to prevent falls from heights on residential projects is costing the nation dearly, both financially and in lost productivity.

Housing affordability is currently a major factor facing home owners, and it’s logical to think that any measure increasing the cost of housing would be carefully analysed and justified before it was imposed.

However, those in the industry know that this is not the case — countless and often needless changes are being incrementally imposed with scant regard to the cost implications.

I’ve been told the cost of falls on construction sites is about $24 million per annum, yet when you ask for the supporting facts and evidence of what the cost of the extra measures are, or even for a cost-benefit analysis, the answers provided by the authorities are very vague, or non-existent.

There are precious little facts available to justify the extent of the current regime. Conservatively, the cost to the consumer of the current approach is approximately $10,000 to $15,000 per dwelling (excluding the consumer’s additional holding costs) — or about $300 million in total, each and every year.

So, my question is, is this money well spent, making a measurable difference, and returning value? The ultimate outcome is safer workplaces with a more affordable product for the end user, and it’s questionable whether our current regime produces either.

Rather than throw stones at the current practice, I decided to look for solutions, and at the best practice of our closest neighbours, Australia.

With a much larger market but very similar construction methods, Australia’s model is a relevant example for us to look to and, come April 2015, we are essentially adopting Australia’s regulatory framework in relation to responsibility and liability for workplace accidents.

These measures are wide ranging and start at the top of each organisation, so it’s important to make sure you’re across them.

Safe Work Australia, our neighbour’s equivalent of Work Safe New Zealand, has produced a Code of Practice, Preventing Falls in Housing Construction, which is a well thought-out publication with obvious practical onsite input.

It covers all areas of risk, including the erection of frames, floor joists, flooring and roof trusses. Importantly, I’m pleased to note that in place of vague guidelines are practical steps, instructions and diagrams that outline exactly what needs to be done in order to comply.

Having read the full document, I believe that with some very minor tweaking it would work perfectly well for New Zealand, and provide safe, practical and affordable solutions to all involved, including those who enforce its clarity.

Like so much of New Zealand’s construction regulation, our compliance is a vague moving target that seems to be designed to protect the enforcing authority from liability, but leaves the practitioner totally confused as to what actually complies.

The adoption of the Australian Code of Practice by Work Safe New Zealand would be a giant step forward, and solve many of the issues and vagaries of our system.

The Australian Code of Practice’s guidelines for preventing falls in residential construction incorporates practical solutions including the following example:

“If trusses are fixed at 600 centres, fall protection is not required — trusses can be erected from below, and work can be done off the top plates of the internal frames. However, edge protection is required for work being done above the truss within 1200mm of the exterior top plate.”

This example represents a real-world solution, and is what most would naturally do on a safe site. The Code of Practice goes into specific detail for each commonly found risk situation — the major difference between what we are doing and what they are doing is that common sense has been applied, with recommendations on economic solutions in certain situations.

I recommend downloading a copy of Safe Work Australia’s Preventing Falls in Household Construction, and having a read for yourself. You will find yourself nodding in agreement as you work through the sections.

It’s not clear where New Zealand’s requirements have come from, or if the authors of them have ever visited a site to experience the outcome of what they have imposed.

Some say our regulators have been trying to adopt UK practises, and they certainly have a completely different method of construction to us. The work and the answers have already been done by the Australians, whose methods of construction match ours more closely.

Work Safe New Zealand would be doing the industry, themselves and the consumer a massive favour by adopting the Australian Code of Practice.

The result will be safer sites with clear, practical, enforceable solutions that mesh with the way we construct, and a significant financial saving to the end consumer.

The task ahead of us now is getting the authorities to take notice.