CONCERNED: Community and Public Sector Union director Beth Vincent-Pietsch says safety comes first and the John Gorton Building should be fully repaired regardless of costs. Photo: Graham Tidy
Canberra's historic John Gorton Building could be wrapped in protective fencing and hoarding for more than three years, as the Finance Department finds funding for urgent repairs to its crumbling facade.
A report released this week has highlighted risks from sandstone panels and lead capping described as critical, but only limited funding for repair work has been allocated. Released by the Environment Department, the report says some of the risks have potentially ''catastrophic'' impacts, including causing death. Inspections on the Parkes Place building, constructed between 1927 and 1956, have found the sandstone and lead are demonstrating accelerated deterioration and falling objects could pose a risk to public safety.
Of the building's 100 wall surfaces, fallen material has been found at the base of 16. The pointing between the sandstone panels also contains asbestos. An estimated 4 per cent of the 24,000 panels need to be replaced while 10 per cent are in need of repair. The report calls for temporary safety fences to be installed around much of the heritage-listed building's 14,000 square metre footprint and overhead protective hoarding to be installed at all entry points.
It points to a risk of serious injury resulting in hospitalisation from the falling debris. Previously repaired in 1996, it was once the largest office building in Australia.
Staff at the site had to be treated for possible lead poisoning after it was revealed contaminated drinking water was being harvested from the roof in 2006. Despite the risk assessment conducted in August by consulting firm Hyder, a department spokeswoman said funds had only been allocated for the north-west face of the building.
''At this time, Finance cannot commit to budget funding to complete the required facade conservation and repair works,'' the report says. ''As the safety risks will remain until full conservation of all facades is completed, Finance cannot provide a definite timeframe for the removal of the safety fence and hoarding.''
A planned six-metre exclusion zone around the building's footprint is likely to remain until the necessary conservation and repair works are completed.
''Previous historical repairs to the facade including the use of an unsympathetic polyurethane sealant in the joints have adversely impacted on the condition of the sandstone panels and must be removed to prevent further damage, deterioration and dislodgement,'' the report says.
Community and Public Sector Union director Beth Vincent-Pietsch called for departmental staffers to be made aware of the risk and a timeline for safety measures.
''You can't put a value on the safety of workers and the general public and it's not just the people who use the building,'' she said.
''Finance crunching the numbers is not appropriate when you are thinking about safety. Everyone has a right to a safe work environment and to be safe in a public area. Looking at a spreadsheet or a calculator and making an assessment that it can wait isn't appropriate.''
The spokeswoman said regular inspections had been implemented to ensure the building and surrounds remained safe for staff, visitors and the general public.
''It is expected that safety fencing will be erected by the end of November 2013,'' she said. ''The funding provided in the 2013-14 budget will fund the ground-to-top repairs to the north-west facing facade, which is the most deteriorated. The remaining three facades will be repaired when budget funding can be made available for these works.''