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Auditor finds inconsistency and poor records in safety inspections of Fluffy homes

Only one in six of the Fluffy houses is receiving the planned four Work Safe inspections during demolition, an audit has found. 

Auditor-General Maxine Cooper has pointed to poor record-keeping and inconsistencies in how Worksafe ACT is monitoring the mass demolition of asbestos-contaminated houses.

"Nearly all sites received an inspection on demolition day. However, only 16 per cent of sites received all four inspections (at smoke‐testing, removal of asbestos, pre‐demolition and demolition) as specified in the draft Workflow processes document (July 2015)," she found in an audit released on Friday.

"If the four inspections identified in that document are accepted as the basic requirements for WorkSafe ACT's regulation of the demolition of loose‐fill asbestos contaminated houses, then inspection activity has fallen far short of meeting that requirement."

​In July 2015 a three‐page draft "workflow processes" document was prepared for inspectors, the first and only procedural document. But Dr Cooper said it was never finalised and officers provided conflicting accounts on its status.

In July 2015, one officer's email described it as "a quick and dirty look at the processes we discussed for managing the Mr Fluffy jobs". The acting Work Safety Commissioner said it had been implemented four days after that email and was the "documented operating procedures for inspections".

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The document sets out  four inspection times: during smoke testing to check the enclosure; during removal of the loose‐fill asbestos; pre‐demolition; at demolition.

Question Time briefs showed those visits were mandatory, describing them as "specific points at which Work Safe inspectors are required to .... conduct workplace visits to sites".

A minute to the chief minister in June 2015 referred to five visits and stressed their importance:

"The minimum Access Canberra commitment to each property is four inspections per property ... Due to two recent electrical related incidents a further workplace visit prior to site establishment is required. … any reduction in the number of inspections of the Mr Fluffy houses will increase the risk to workers, ACT Government staff and potentially exposure and/or embarrassment for the program," it said.

Dr Cooper concluded there was "ambiguity" about the inspections. "It is unclear what inspections ... are mandatory or discretionary. Furthermore, if inspections are discretionary, there is no guidance on how this discretion is to be exercised," she said.

​Dr Cooper questioned cases in which inspectors had entered houses. Between July and September 2015 three inspectors had entered five of the 13 houses, one of them before the asbestos had been removed. In another, a prohibition notice had been issued because fibres were seen on a beam. In September 2016, an inspector reported, "Walk inside the house found a number of rafters did not appear to be adequately sprayed or in some cases may have been missed".

The auditor said there was no rationale for inspectors entering houses, which risked their safety. In December 2016 Worksafe stopped the practice.

Dr Cooper details one inspection where an inspector saw a worker exit a house in north Canberra without decontaminating. The worker's coveralls were open about 30cm below the neck. The  inspector alerted the workers, but the auditor said the file contained no further reference to the incident. Dr Cooper questioned why no improvement notice had been issued and no follow up action taken.

The audit reviewed 272 case files, and found only 16 per cent had had all four inspections as set out earlier. Forty-four percent had at least four inspections, but either the smoke‐test inspection or the pre‐demolition inspection was not done.

The audit also found a change as demolitions ramped up.

"As the rate of demolitions increased during 2015‐16 there was a decline in the overall number of inspections per site and the quality of records management significantly declined."

Work Safety Commissioner Greg Jones, who took on the job in April 2016, rejected the suggestion that four inspections at the specific times identified by Dr Cooper were a basic requirement. 

Decisions about inspections were risk based. "Each demolition is its own little project and a judgement is made based on each individual demolition," he said. 

He said the audit's key message had been that Worksafe should develop its own Fluffy-specific documentation, which it was now doing.

The program was safe for workers and the public, with only one minor injury, and air monitoring showing no asbestos fibres above limits, Mr Jones said.