Locals investigate the scene of a bridge collapse on the Barton Highway. Photo: Lannon Harley
The ACT could become the second jurisdiction in Australia to register engineers in an attempt to crack down on shoddy operators who have been responsible for serious construction collapses in the territory in recent years.
ACT Workplace Safety Minister Simon Corbell agreed last week to a recommendation from the government's independent inquiry into construction industry safety to set up a compulsory registration scheme for engineers working in the territory. The scheme would be set up as soon as possible - and before a deadline of June 2014.
Mr Corbell said on Thursday the government would determine the model of compulsory registration for engineers and other construction-related professionals once it received recommendations from the review of the ACT Building Act in the first half of next year. The review is a separate continuing investigation into building quality and associated trades regulation.
Mr Corbell said ''there will be significant cultural issues to be addressed within the engineering profession as they move from a deregulated to a regulated work environment''.
According to the inquiry report, engineering failures had contributed to numerous serious accidents across construction sites in the ACT over recent years. These included the 2010 Barton Highway bridge collapse, the 2008 Belconnen Cameron Offices wall collapse and the 2008 Marcus Clarke Street slab collapse, ''each of which could easily have led to a number of fatalities''.
These types of engineering failures often had ''catastrophic consequences for human lives and … significant financial impact on the community,'' the report said.
The ACT faces a shortage of qualified engineers as does the rest of the nation and the panel heard that ''inappropriately qualified or poorly experienced engineers [were] 'signing off' on certain types of structures outside their field of expertise or beyond their experience''.
This was the case in the Barton Highway bridge collapse when the formwork for a concrete pour was signed off but could not hold the weight of the concrete.
Queensland is the only state or territory to introduce its own regulatory scheme in the interests of public safety. The Queensland Professional Engineers Act makes it an offence to work as an unsupervised engineer without registration and imposes financial penalties on those who do.
Western Australia is also considering a similar act.
The Council of Australian Governments is negotiating a national engineer registration scheme to be introduced within five to 10 years. That is in response to an ad hoc system of 14 acts and subordinate legislation regulating some engineering services across the states and territories.
But last week's inquiry findings cautioned that the ACT could not afford to wait that long and should ''go it alone''.
''There is a strong case for immediate action to raise the bar on the level of recognised engineering
qualifications acceptable in the jurisdiction,'' it said.
The director of the ACT branch of the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia, David Smith, said it was ''now not uncommon'' for workers with trade certificates, or basic trades experience to be put in charge of projects requiring engineering expertise.
Engineers Australia operated a voluntary registration scheme that takes in 100,000 engineers, but this left another 100,000 engineers without any form of registration in a largely self-regulated industry.
The president of the Canberra division of Engineers Australia, Doug Mitchell, welcomed the ACT inquiry's recommendations, saying ensuring engineering standards was a basic facet of improving construction industry safety.
''Given there is a public safety issue here - and doctors and lawyers all have to be registered - I would think the public would assume engineers should be subject to similar standards.''
Mr Mitchell agreed that while Engineers Australia required tertiary qualifications before registering a member on its voluntary national register, there was nothing to stop an unqualified labourer assuming the title.
While the professional body could deregister a member for a serious breach, non-members could not be sanctioned other than through the courts.
''In which case, they can continue to practice while litigation goes on and, if the case is settled out of court, nobody knows not to use them.
''An ACT registration scheme could be an important first step while a national scheme is set up. It could help ensure more workers get home safely and the public's safety is not jeopardised,'' he said.
The recommendation accepted by the ACT government is to meet a deadline of June 2014 to set up an ACT register. In the meantime it recommends using only engineers who can demonstrate their registration with the National Professional Engineers' Register.
Mr Corbell said the cost of regulation ''will depend on the final model of regulation chosen by the government''. He said in occupations that are already directly regulated, the cost of licensing was fully covered by application and licensing fees while the broader cost of regulation in the sector was covered by building levy and associated fees.