Leading occupational health and safety (OHS) body WorkCover New South Wales has announced a six-week blitz on work health and safety standards on commercial construction sites across Sydney.
OHS representatives are currently visiting sites in Sydney's central business district, greater metropolitan areas and regional centres – as well as hot spots across regional NSW – in order to ensure companies are operating in compliance with OHS requirements and laws.
This High Risk Commercial Construction strategy was announced after several major accidents and events received national media attention – including instances involving those working at heights. Therefore, the focus of the initiative will be construction companies working on multi-level buildings.
"In the past 18 months there have been three high profile incidents in the commercial construction sector involving scaffolding and tower cranes, however, it is important to note there has been no common link between the causes of these incidents," WorkCover NSW's WHS Division General Manager John Watson said in a March 14 media release.
While the blitz is a crucial reminder of the importance of following correct OHS standards, industry leaders would like to remind business owners and employers not to wait for accidents to happen before investing in important policies, such as working at heights training.
"This initiative is in addition to the ongoing compliance focus applied in WorkCover's daily prevention and response activities," Mr Watson explained.
"Our inspectors will address non-compliance issues with regulatory notices and low-risk issues addressed with the provision of advice and assistance."
The events that inspired the blitz
The reasons behind the blitz could be attributed to two key incidents on Sydney construction sites. The first occurred on January 9 this year when a young Indigenous worker fell 30 metres from scaffolding at the Barangaroo construction site.
Emergency services were called to the site at 8.30 a.m. but, despite CPR efforts from his colleagues and the paramedics, the 26-year-old man was pronounced dead at the scene.
A union representing the construction workers claims that the individual had only been on the job for two weeks and was not being sufficiently supervised at the time of his fall. However, the company leading construction on the site dismisses this claim, revealing that a number of witnesses believe the man may have suffered a heart attack before his fall.
The company is currently co-operating with the relevant authorities to uncover the cause of the incident and, in particular, learn whether the death could have been prevented.
"Another life lost at work is an absolute tragedy and something these workers will never forget. The safe return home from work is something that all workers should expect and demand and something we will always fight for," NSW Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) State Secretary Brian Parker told media after the incident.
The second event that sparked this OHS blitz in Sydney was the collapse of a five-storey scaffolding rig at the Mascot building site in Sydney's south-east.
This event fortunately resulted in no loss of life, but three individuals suffered minor and moderate injuries. The collapse happened while the rig was being dismantled and two workers were lucky to escape with their lives after riding the falling materials 10 metres to the ground.
One of these workers suffered limb and chest injuries while the other sustained only minor cuts and abrasions. A bystander was also treated for shock at the scene.
Additionally, around 100 workers had to be evacuated from the site – resulting in a full afternoon of lost work. CFMEU Assistant Secretary Rob Kera told the media how shaken up workers were about the incident.
"We're lucky we didn't have multiple fatalities down here this afternoon. There would have been a lot of workers on this site, a lot of building workers who can count their lucky stars they are going home this afternoon," he said.
This accident brought up mixed reactions regarding the company's attitude to WHS faults. The union representing workers on the site had previously raised concerns about the scaffolding structure, recommending that work be halted on the site.
The company, however, rejects this claim, explaining that WHS representatives had visited the site several times and found no faults with the scaffolding or construction processes.
The activities at the focus of the blitz
As WHS staff visit construction sites across NSW, they will be focusing on a number of high risk activities commonly undertaken within this industry.
The specific areas the blitz has been tailored to address include:
– Multi-level scaffolding
– Emergency evacuations on multi-storey sites
– Working at heights
– Electrical hazards (including all work near power lines)
– Site security
– Hot works (heat- and spark-producing tasks, such as welding)
– Demolition activities
WorkCover NSW will be holding meetings with all major contractors to inform the investigation process during this High Risk Commercial Construction strategy. Additionally, this will also be an opportunity for WorkCover to ensure employers understand their obligations regarding OHS standards in the workplace.
Consultations will also be available to "make clear to the industry our expectations in relation to the action they need to be taking to ensure the safe operations of construction sites and the impact of incidents on the NSW community," Mr Watson explained.
Employers in the construction industry in Sydney and across Australia should take this opportunity to review their OHS policy and practices, particularly those regarding working at heights.
It is important to ensure all staff required to work above the ground are being offered adequate supervision and working at heights training opportunities.