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Safety crackdown launched on Nishi work site


Emma Macdonald

Workplace safety officers Alan Chipperfield and Mark McCabe are part of a team of officers that made a suprise visit to ...

Workplace safety officers Alan Chipperfield and Mark McCabe are part of a team of officers that made a suprise visit to the Nishi building site in Canberra today. Photo: Karleen Minney

ACT Work Safety Commissioner Mark McCabe has found ‘‘a significant number of serious issues’’ following a safety blitz at the Nishi construction site in New Acton as work crews go into overdrive to get the commercial buildings completed by Monday.

The safety regulator will prepare overnight at least two prohibition notices to stop work on Thursday over site security and internal scaffolding breaches and is preparing a raft of improvement notices and fines after sending eight WorkSafe inspectors for a three-hour  blitz on Wednesday morning.

Mr McCabe said it was disappointing to see the building site in such a state and he delivered a heartfelt warning to workers to ‘‘be mindful of what they are doing”.

Eight inspectors visited the site after it was "red-flagged" by the regulator.

Eight inspectors visited the site after it was "red-flagged" by the regulator. Photo: Karleen Minney

“I do understand the commercial imperative but I don’t want anyone to get there at the cost of their livelihoods,’’ Mr McCabe said.

He said the final days of a construction project  ‘‘are always extremely risky and need to be impeccably managed when you have trades working over the top of each other to a deadline.’’

It is believed that principal contractor Ply could be up for $20,000 a day in liquidated damages if it runs over time.

Some workers were unhappy with the extra attention.

Some workers were unhappy with the extra attention. Photo: Karleen Minney

Ply chief executive David Murphy did not wish to comment on the building’s safety breaches or completion time frame.

Developers the Molonglo Group were also ‘‘busy making preparations to finalise the building so that the tenants can move in the coming weeks’’ and could not comment.

Improvement notices to be issued over the coming days include failure to provide adequate penetration covers, fall from heights risk, trip hazards, electrical issues, and ‘‘a large number of site housekeeping and maintenance issues.’’

Mr McCabe said the regulator was also preparing a number of fines for workers and managers over white cards – the general construction industry induction requirement. Inspectors spoke to 200 workers on the site on Wednesday.

Managers would be fined in excess of $2000 for each worker who had not completed induction training, while workers themselves would be fined $430. Further, workers who failed to carry their white card would be fined $144 and the employer could be fined $700.

But Mr McCabe said it was apparent that numerous workers had left the site upon the arrival of the WorkSafe inspectors.

‘‘We saw a number of them leaving and you have to wonder why,’’ Mr McCabe said.

Meanwhile, tensions were running high at the site, with some workers unhappy to see the pace of work temporarily slowed by the arrival of the WorkSafe team shortly after 9am. Mr McCabe said it was unfortunate that some of the workers whose safety and health the inspectors were trying to protect, felt antagonistic towards the safety regulator.

He noted that earlier in the year during a safety check, one inspector allegedly had a metal pipe thrown at him by another worker.

‘‘It is not widespread but some workers are antagonist towards us and it says something about the culture of the site.’’

Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union ACT secretary Dean Hall said the union had also often been subject to a hostile reception when trying to address safety issues on a work site close to deadline.

‘‘The thing we have to remember is these guys will still have to do all the work even while it takes hours to go through a safety issue. You can understand why they would get shirty, even when we are all trying to protect their safety.’’

WorkSafe launched the blitz on the Nishi site in the first show of strength since the ACT government’s independent inquiry into workplace safety was handed down last week.

The blitz was announced via WorkSafe's Twitter account, which said the crackdown was ‘‘in response to repeated complaints and concerns’’ on the $550 million development in New Acton.

It also included a crackdown on workers compensation breaches – with two of the inspectors workers compensation specialists.

It is illegal for employers not to pay workers compensation premiums for employees, but Mr McCabe said it was increasingly common for workers not to be insured in order to cut costs. The average construction premium for workers compensation is 6.6 per cent of the wage and salary bill for employers in the ACT.

Mr McCabe said it could take several days to chase down the paperwork on workers checked for insurance coverage.

The Nishi development has been ‘‘red flagged’’ this year by the regulator, which has previously issued nine formal notices to the company - the most recent of which was immediately after 21-year-old construction worker Jayson Bush fell 6.5-metre down a ventilation shaft  last month.

The accident - in which Mr Bush broke his back, five ribs and punctured a lung - is now the subject of a separate investigation by WorkSafe ACT's serious investigation team that could result in legal action.

Mr McCabe indicated another serious issue at the site was under investigation ‘‘and we believe it may lead to a recommendation for prosecution’’.

The six-Green-star-rated commercial complex  includes office space for the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and legal firm Clayton Utz. Residential apartments on the same site are scheduled to finish by April.

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