High staff turnover on Canberra's light rail project contributed to an increase in safety violations in the lead up to a gas line strike that unleashed peak hour chaos earlier this year, internal ACT government documents have shown.
ACT Transport Minister Meegan Fitzharris sought an urgent briefing from officials after two utility strikes in one day shut down the city's main arterial road in February.
That briefing, obtained by the Canberra Times under freedom of information laws, revealed there were five safety incidents that day, which resulted in construction being shut down for four days.
The document, dated February 22, said there had been an increase in reported safety breaches from August 2017, which gave Transport Canberra a level of concern.
Canberra Metro bumped up its on-site safety activities to address the number and severity of incidents, which Transport Canberra deputy director-general Duncan Edghill said reduced the number of breaches until December.
However by February, Canberra Metro's lost time injury rate - the number of injuries that caused time lost from work per million hours worked - was 1.64, more than three-and-a-half times their target. As of this month, the rate was 1.34.
Similarly the total injury frequency rate in February was 8.18 for the project, nearly double Canberra Metro's target. Currently, it is at 8.01.
Mr Edghill said there had been an increase in workers on site in the lead up to the gas line strike and the frequency of incidents was generally not tracking above the growth of the workforce size.
Transport Canberra ... has emphasised to Canberra Metro that ensuring a safe worksite ... eclipses all other concerns, including program.Briefing note to ACT Transport Minister
He wrote that the lost-time injury rate was within industry expectations for a major construction project, as it was under 2, although the total reportable incident frequency rate was higher than expected.
Mr Edghill said the contributing factors appeared to be a change in management, removing controls out of sequence which allowed unsafe behaviour to occur, complacency, training and competency.
Canberra Metro had also advised that they were having challenges with recruitment and retention, with a number of staff leaving work on projects in Sydney and Melbourne, he said.
"This is likely to have had a contributing effect on site safety and new resources are engaged on the project who may take some time to be fully trained in working with a tier one company and their safety management systems," Mr Edghill wrote.
However he said Transport Canberra was "to date" generally satisfied with the level of safety on the Canberra Metro work site.
“Transport Canberra through various forms has emphasised to Canberra Metro that ensuring a safe work site is the highest priority for the project. It eclipses all other concerns, including program," Mr Edghill wrote.
The briefing said Canberra Metro now had a "right wing" approach to safety - “if you do not comply, you will be counselled and/or leave project”.
The ACT government will also withhold its $375 million capital contribution to the project until operations begin.
A Transport Canberra spokeswoman said there had only been three lost time injuries on the project to date - "an injured knee, a cut finger and a back injury".
She said problems with recruitment were no longer impacting on safety.
"As construction nears completion Canberra Metro is reducing the numbers of workers across the project. The number of workers on light rail stage 1 peaked at 700 in April 2018. The number of workers on the project is now steadily decreasing as construction nears completion," the spokeswoman said.
"Canberra Metro’s proactive and transparent reporting culture encourages the reporting of all potential safety incidents, including minor incidents. This strong reporting culture promotes an environment of continual safety improvement and is vital to preventing and managing risks."
There are currently 644 people working on the light rail project and 2,433,357 hours have been clocked up.
However the CFMEU said the number of incidents did not just come down to the size of the project and a good reporting culture.
"There have been a number of incidents, such as the hitting of service lines, that are not in line with industry expectations," ACT secretary Jason O'Mara said.
Mr O'Mara said staff turnover was not an excuse for poor safety.
"If there are the appropriate safety systems in place, including inductions and consultation with workers, then these incidents are less likely to occur," Mr O'Mara said.
But ACT Work Safety Commissioner Greg Jones said Canberra Metro was working cooperatively with the safety watchdog, and had a culture of "continuous safety improvements."
The ACT government funded dedicated WorkSafe light rail inspectors in last year's budget, and the regulator has carried out 215 inspections since the project began. So far it's issued four infringement notices, five prohibition notices and four improvement notices.
"Every work site is different, so it is difficult to provide any ratios of comparative incident reporting to other
sites. However it is important to note that light rail construction involves specialised work activity, which
has not been undertaken in the ACT before," Mr Jones said.
Major safety incidents on Canberra's stage one light rail construction
- December 7, 2016 - A worker using a hydrovac is thrown two metres by an electric shock after coming into contact with a live wire.
- March 3, 2017 - A worker sustained minor injuries during excavation works for road widening. No more details are known about the incident, but it was classified as having the potential to cause serious injury or death.
- April 3, 2017 - A near-miss was reported during trench works. The incident was recorded as having the potential to cause serious injuries or death.
- May 12, 2017 - An unsupported shallow trench collapsed on a worker's legs after heavy rain. WorkSafe attended but took no further action as Canberra Metro installed shoring to prevent further collapses.
- August 3, 2017 - A near-miss was reported during the excavation of a stormwater trench. The incident was classified as having the potential to cause loss of time injuries.
- August 9, 2017 - A machine used to roll road base is driven to park on the verge overnight. This was recorded as an unsafe act with the potential to cause serious injuries or death but no injury was caused and no more details are recorded.
- September 7, 2017 - An unsafe act and unsafe conditions were recorded during the installation of a concrete stormwater stump. No injuries were recorded but the incident was classified as having the potential to cause serious injuries or death.
- September 12, 2017 - An unsafe act and unsafe conditions were recorded during the excavation and installation of a case bore pipe in a three-metre trench. No injuries were recorded but the incident was classified as having the potential to cause serious injuries or death.
- November 20, 2017 - A near-miss is reported during excavation of a combined services trench. No more details are recorded but it was classified as having the potential to cause injury or death.
- November 24, 2017 - Three prohibition notices issued by Worksafe after refuelling in a hot works area caused a fire. Canberra Metro received four fines and the subcontractor received two fines. Each fine was worth $3600.
- November 29, 2017 - WorkSafe serves improvement notice for failing to maintain site security to prevent unauthorised access.
- December 4, 2017 - WorkSafe issues improvement notice for failing to notify the regulator of a near-miss that could have resulted in loss of life or serious injury on December 1.
- December 7, 2017 - WorkSafe serves prohibition notice preventing use of hydro-vacuuming after a worker received an electric shock.
- December 22, 2017 - A worker arrived on site at 6.30am after drinking alcohol the previous night. He travelled to the shops to buy alcohol in his morning break. He worked until his scheduled knock off time, around lunchtime, and drank half the bottle in his car over approximately an hour. The worker was then asked to move his car by a traffic controller. He parked his car at an undisclosed location and fell asleep inside it. The traffic controller called police who woke up the worker, arrested him and took him away for further testing. The delivery contractor and the worker's employer met that day and agreed he would not return to work on the project.
- January 15, 2018 - A subcontractor used a four-inch battery-operated grinder to cut a cable that was presumed to be a redundant low voltage electrical service cable saw a spark and smoke come from the cable. The cable was being removed to install storm water pipe due to a clash with the invert levels. The cabling system was not proven de-energised and was subsequently identified as live feed in a nearby community facility. The worker did not experience an electric shock or any injuries.
- January 18, 2018 - A contractor using a 65-millimetre hole-saw to cut into a junction box struck a live 240-volt cable feeding nearby traffic lights. The 10-amp circuit breaker associated with the traffic lights tripped, causing operations to cease. The worker did not report receiving an electric shock or injury.
- January 18, 2018 - A contractor removing wooden gluts under the rails at the depot maintenance building lost their balance when a bar used for lifting the rail has slipped. The worker fell 1.8 metres into the adjoining maintenance pit landing on his back. The worker was taken to hospital for medical assessment and cleared of any serious injury.
- February 8, 2018 - A worker using a six-inch battery-operated circular saw to cut through form-ply struck the forefinger of his left, causing a deep cut that required immediate medical attention. An ambulance was called and the worker was taken to hospital for further treatment.
- February 15, 2018 - Canberra Metro struck a water main near Phillip Avenue in the morning and at approximately 3pm the same day struck and damaged a gas main at the corner of Northbourne Avenue and Macarthur Avenue. The gas main strike forced the emergency evacuation of nearby buildings and the shutdown of Northbourne Avenue in both directions from Macarthur Avenue to Ipima Street for approximately three hours. Emergency services and police attended although there was a 10-15 minute delay in dialling Triple-0 due to the contractor trying to manage the immediate response on site.
- April 5, 2018 - A subcontractor operating a drilling rig on the Flemington Road verge struck and damaged an underground communication conduit. Cables had not yet been installed inside the conduit and no injuries were recorded. A worker responsible for observing the construction works and identifying risks returned a positive blood alcohol reading. The worker was immediately dismissed and all work at the location stopped. The worker had completed a site induction and was in their second day of work and a probationary period.
- May 3, 2018 - Workers uncover bonded, non-friable asbestos in a redundant Telstra conduit near the Northbourne/Antill Street intersection, which later collapsed. A supervisor wrapped the material in plastic and placed it to the side of the trench, in contravention of Canberra Metro's unexpected finds process but in line with the asbestos management procedures. The material remained there for four days until removed by a licensed asbestos removalist. The junior of the two supervisors on site was doing his first shifts on site and had missed his asbestos training the day before. Both supervisors were "processed through the organisation’s accountable culture process" and "have since left the project". Air monitoring indicated the likelihood of risk exposure to nearby workers was negligible. Canberra Metro is doing a baseline medical assessment with any workers involved.
Other notable safety incidents
- July 20, 2016 - Two members of the public were witnessed using an air powered rifle near the construction zone.
- September 16, 2016 - A worker was injured while while walking along a footpath assisting in the deliver of flyers for the project.
- December 21, 2016 - A traffic controller was injured while travelling in the back of a cone truck putting cones out on Northbourne Avenue.
- March 4, 2017 - A worker was injured while removing an animal from the road.
- August 23, 2017 - A person was injured at the site compound on Northbourne Avenue during "after work activities".
Do you know more? Email email@example.com