Master Builders’ curious response on construction safety

In November 2012, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government released “Getting Home Safely“, a damning report written by Lynette Briggs and Mark McCabe, into the safety culture and performance of that territory’s building and construction industry.  But the Master Builders Association of the ACT has rejected several recommendations and questioned many others, yet refuses to release the evidence that it is assumed would support their position.

Cover of http___www.mba.orgIn February 2013, ACT’s Minister for Workplace Safety and Industrial Relations, Simon Corbell, accepted all 27 recommendations of the report, much to the surprise of some of us.  Corbell said in his media release that

“It is no longer acceptable for people in the construction industry to say there are safety issues in construction sites and then do nothing about them. This report compels unions, employers and government to stand up and actively promote a culture where everyone looks out for their mates, and everyone can go home safely every day…”

“As the report highlights, this is not simply an issue for Government. Safety is an issue for every person on a construction site with principal contractors, sub-contractors, workers, unions and the Regulator all working together.

“The Government expects employers and unions to demonstrate leadership on this issue.”

Safety Leadership or Conspiracy Theory

Today the Master Builders Association of the ACT released its response to “Getting Home Safely” (the Gower review).  That response indicates that not all Minister Corbell’s expectations are going to be met with the MBA.  In some ways this confirms many of the concerns in the report.

Firstly it must be acknowledged that the MBA will only be releasing a synopsis of the report, a position confirmed by SafetyAtWorkBlog.  This severely restricts discussion on the evidence base and the report’s findings.  If the MBA is contesting some of the statistics, recommendations and findings on construction industry safety, if it is genuinely committed to safety leadership, as it seemed to be in October 2012 when it conducted its Safety Culture & Leadership Forum, the full report should be released publicly.

Why did the MBA initiate the Gower review?

One reason for its caution listed in the synopsis is

“The MBA felt it was imperative that recommendations in the Briggs-McCabe report did not create additional administrative burdens that would adversely impact on members’ viability and their ability to conduct their businesses by adding more complex compliance measures.”

Translation? Red Tape….. again.

But this misses a major point of the Getting Home Safely report.  The Briggs-McCabe panel was established to

“…conduct an inquiry into compliance with and application of work health and safety laws in the ACT’s construction industry.”

It analysed the compliance to existing OHS laws and found the attitudes of the construction industry to these laws seriously lacking, perhaps even negligent.

“The reasons for the ACT construction industry’s poor record are many and varied. There is a culture of complacency based on the nature of the industry—tough, dirty and dangerous—that seems surprisingly accepting of workplace injuries. Safety is often not given the priority it should be given in the workplace and there is a strong view that safety is just another cost add-on for a highly competitive industry to bear.

There is enormous pressure to complete work according to the ‘program’—on time and on budget, even at the cost of work health and safety. People seem to spend too much time focusing on paperwork and too little time managing risks and hazards in the work place and assisting team mates to do the right thing on the job.” (Page 6)

MBA’s concern over additional,”new” business costs is simply the recouping of the “old” costs saved by the construction industry through non-compliance.  The new expenditure i  needed to establish a strong compliance base from which the construction industry can grow and increase profitability without killing workers.  It seems a reasonable request from the ACT Government.

The Gower review was undertaken by Major-General  Steve Gower, AO, AO (Mil).  Curiously the MBA stressed that the

“authorship of the report rested with Steve Gower with input from his Working Group colleagues.”

Most industry associations in Australia feel they have sufficient authority in themselves to produce a response to government reports and white papers.

Gower’s colleagues are listed as

Prof. Patrick Zou – University of Canberra
Dr. Rob Long – Human Dymensions – Safety Culture
Alan Seymour – Kynetic (links added)

The rejection of recommendations 10 and 11

The MBA does not support two recommendations of the Briggs-McCabe report.  One recommends

“the development (by the MBA and the Housing Industry Association) of clear frameworks for the management of safety on ACT construction sites, recognising the practical needs of varying sized businesses and the differing sectors, such as civil, commercial and residential, and recognising the importance of good planning in achieving safer worksites.” (page 11)

These are rejected because the MBA believes

“….the management of safety were not tasks an industry association such as the MBA could undertake..”

The management of safety is clearly, and legislatively, a responsibility of employers and Persons Conducting Businesses and Undertakings but the recommendation from the Briggs-McCabe report is not for the management of safety but for guidance and “clear frameworks”.  The MBA, an association that, according to its website,  “represents all sectors of the ACT building and construction industry” and has staff experienced in safety, seems to be leaving its members flapping in the breeze on safety advice.

The excuse is unconvincing yet it is difficult to identify avalid reason for rejecting the recommendations.  The MBA commits to continued participation in government initiatives on construction industry safety but rejects recommendations 10 and 11.  Very strange.

Drugs and Alcohol Testing

Some commentators have interpreted the MBA’s apparent support for random drugs and alcohol testing as a powerful initiative.  The synopsis report released by the MBA does not seem tosupport this.  The findings say, with emphasis added:

Consider the introduction of random impairment testing on construction worksites through the increased Work Safe ACT inspectorate to build on government and community expectations regarding safety in the industry, and based on data that identifies drugs and alcohol as a safety issue in the industry.”

One can consider anything and without the obligation to enact what is being considered.  It is a weak word used by those who intend to do little but want to provide the impression of action.

The MBA’s executive director John Miller provided more information to the Canberra Times on the Gower Report, perhaps information that was included in the secret full report.  Miller said

“With the community’s current expectations very high on improvements around safety on construction worksites, the Gower Review believes it is now time to consider the introduction of random testing for impairment on worksites.”

“This is in keeping with data for instance that suggests that the effects of drugs and alcohol on people working on building sites is unacceptably high and this initiative should be seen as no different to managing safety on our roads.”

As far as SafetyAtWorkBlog is aware, evidence, other than anecdotal, for drugs and alcohol contributing to injuries on Australian construction sites does not yet exist.  Miller also makes a logic leap that is common but invalid by comparing drug and alcohol use by workers in construction with that of drivers on public roads.  Both environments have critical differences in personal responsibility, employer oversight and legislative requirements.

Also, interestingly, Miller, and the Gower report, use the term “impairment”.  There is no test yet that determines impairment as the term can be broadly applied.  OHS laws would consider impairment to be anything in the work environment or the physical or mental health of the worker that could impede full cognitive function.  SafetyAtWorkBlog supports research into this area but impairment in the work environment remains an underdeveloped research stream and, for the construction industry, embryonic.

Occupational health and safety has always been a political beast but it seems moreso now than ever before, or perhaps there are just more people like me writing about it.  The synopsis of the Gower report is a curious document that suggests some positives but they seem outweighed by the negatives and conditions.  If the MBA accepts that workplace safety is as important as the ACT government and WorkSafeACT thinks it is, the complete Gower Report should be released to the public so that the evidence to support the MBA’s findings can be read and understood.  To not do so raises questions of MBA’s commitment to improving safety in the ACT construction industry.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

4 thoughts on “Master Builders’ curious response on construction safety”

  1. Construction safety intrigues most people as most of the accidents these days take place due to construction discrepancies. The smallest negligence in construction industries can lead to more fatalities than you thought it would.

  2. WorkSafe ACT\’s Commissioner Mark McCabe has responded to the MBA\’s analysis in a media release available at http://www.worksafe.act.gov.au/news/view/1459/title/work-safety-commissioner-response-to . The text is below:

    \”MBA response to Getting Home Safely report

    While I recognise the undeniable commitment from the MBA to addressing safety in the local industry, and their willingness to work with myself and others to achieve that goal, some aspects of their statement today regarding the Getting Home Safely report concern me.
    The MBA\’s lack of unequivocal support for the report\’s call for a 35% improvement in the local industry\’s safety record is potentially a serious setback for local workers. In many senses this is a modest target. After all, if achieved it would simply bring us up to the national average, no more.

    As difficult a target as this will be, however, its best chance of success lies in the united efforts of the industry, unions, the regulator and the Government to achieve it. The industry\’s continuing denial of our local record, despite the MBA national office using this very same data in its own report on OHS Performance in the Construction Industry in
    November 2011, and the MBA referencing the national component of that data in their own submission to the Inquiry, is an impediment to change. A critical component in achieving change is an acceptance of the need for that change to occur.

    My other disappointment is in the MBA\’s rejection of the report\’s call for them, as one of the two significant industry representative bodies here in the ACT, to show the leadership the industry needs at this point in time. The Getting Home Safely report was a damning one for
    the local industry, and the calls for reform and change are significant. While I understand the difficulty in accepting such criticism, the industry has to do more than sit back and call on everyone else to lift their game while rejecting the pivotal importance of their own responsibilities.

    I am very heartened by the MBA\’s support for the call for cultural change. It is important, however, for local employers to recognise that cultural changes which works invariably does so as a result of a top-down approach. Such change needs to start with an employer\’s management team, and gain genuine support and commitment there, before it moves on to a call for workers to also embrace the change needed.\”

  3. Having had a career in construction, and having been directly involved with the MBA and their supposed opposition, and noting that the MBA realy represent domestic construction as this is where by far the majority of its members are, and that the domestic/housing construction industry have the least safety compliance, and also noting that the MBA give their members generic SWMS that their members use without consultation of the people whom are to use the SWMS, I think the MBA are a bit of a joke and should spend less time and energy writing and releasing anti union/MBA brand building media statements and spend more time helping their members with their due diligence.

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