Changing mindsets, saving lives


Mike Fox’s Opinion editorial in Building Today September warmed up and chewed over the New Zealand Initiative’s critical report of WorkSafe NZ’s working at height regulations, without adding anything new to the argument.


Yes, some “actual” figures were quoted — for instance, scaffold erect/dismantle costs of $3980 for Christchurch single level builds.


He also claimed that with scaffolding in short supply, “opportunistic” businesses are telling builders “this is the price, take it or leave it”, and “if I don’t get a decision by the morning I can’t get back for two weeks”.


I know of firms who have recently been pricing single storey builds in Christchurch, and erect/dismantle costs were around the $2500 mark — but it’s Mr Fox’s comments about “opportunistic” behaviour that interest me most.


The well-planned building project will have fall protection services locked in weeks before work is due to start. If you’re in a position where you’re ringing someone needing scaffolding at short notice, then chances are your planning hasn’t been up to much — and therein lies the crux of the matter. 


WorkSafe NZ’s practical requirements do not need to add significant costs to a single level dwelling as long as you are well organised and factor whichever fall protection method you plan to use into your project plan.


Many large residential building companies are doing this very efficiently. They plan every stage of a project in detail, they know what materials they will need and when, what tradespeople they will need and when, and what fall protection method they need and when.


That means — if they have chosen scaffolding as their fall protection — that when it is erected they are ready to use it to its full potential. They have the people and the materials in place to get the necessary work done, and they don’t need to pay weekly rental for scaffolding any longer than necessary.


That sensible use of resources doesn’t just apply to fall protection equipment. Knowing what stage of building you will be at when, ensuring you have the right materials and conditions in place at the right time, and your subcontractors booked in when you need them will boost quality, productivity and savings.


Failing to plan is planning to fail. If you’re a sloppy planner, then you’ll likely have a loose budget too and, yes, costs to your client are going to spiral.


An increasing number of smaller builders are very good at planning ahead too. However, a lot of the complaints about the falls from height regulations come from smaller builders, working on one or two house builds at a time.


When you’ve done things the same way for a long time, then it can be hard to change. We’ve all heard the comments. “It’s the nanny state forcing it on us”, “it’s not the Kiwi way”, “I’ve been doing it this way for 30 years and my father 30 years before me and we’ve never had a fall”.


The truth is we all know tradesmen who have suffered a fall from height, often incurring injuries which they carry for life. The most important “actual figures” we should all be looking at are the ones that show there has already been a 29.5% reduction in notifications of serious harm caused by falls from height since WorkSafe NZ’s measures were introduced.


Specialist trade contractors and all construction workers deserve to know they can go to work and all possible measures have been taken to protect them. Clients deserve to know their homes are being constructed by builders who take care of their workforce. No home owner wants to stand in their garden and think “that’s where the builder fell”.


We don’t need to take a retrograde step back, as Mr Fox suggests, to “just as it used to be”. We need the stragglers to take a step forward and drag their mindset into the 21st Century.


Some well-organised main contractors are going a step further in their planning and involving subcontractors — including those providing fall protection — in their planning at an early stage. That can bring a lot of gains too.


You’re assured of getting the subcontractors you want to work with, you get loyalty and productivity advantages because they have also been able to plan for the work, and subcontractors can often also offer simple strategies to save the main contractor time and money.


Well planned projects progress efficiently and systematically, and are more likely to be finished ahead of time with cost savings to the main contractor and, just as important, to the home owner.


Mike Fox replies:

Given that Mr Burke, along with other scaffolding members of the Specialists Trade Association have been financial beneficiaries of this regime, their response to my column comes as little surprise.


I find the response to be high on emotion, low on fact, condescending to builders and zealously protective of the current regime. This is entirely understandable when, through regulation, they have been delivered a gold rush, so why would they want anything to change, or to look at more cost effective or productive alternatives?


Not for one minute have I ever espoused that builders take risks or put their subtrades at risk. Safety on projects is paramount, but not at an unlimited cost.


What I have consistently said is that a full cost-benefit analysis should have been done before such large costs are placed upon the industry and the consumer.


When housing affordability is one of the biggest hurdles facing the home owner, adding another $10,000 to the cost of a new 200sq m single-level home should not have been done without proper due consideration.


All my comments are based on facts and actual real experiences of builders who operate at all levels within the industry. If you read my column on page 26 in this month’s issue on the Loopy Rules Report, you will see that the very regime that Mr Burke says brings us into the 20th Century is, not surprisingly, singled out by the Loopy Rules Task Force as a vague, bureaucratic, unworkable mess.


The safe, cost-effective way forward is for WorksafeNZ to adopt the Australian code of practice for falling from height. This will give clarity as to what is required, reduce costs by up to 75% and yet still deliver protection for those working at height.


There is nothing to stop builders from deciding to undertake further measures as Mr Burke suggests, and I would applaud them if that is right for their business.


Mr Burke telling us that this regime is justified because claim numbers have reduced by 29.5% is meaningless without giving actual numbers and what it has cost.


For example, there were 198 fall-related claims on residential work and no fatalities in 2014 — so that translates into hundreds of millions of dollars of expenditure to avert 58 fall-related claims. An actual claim equates to having to take a week off work.


In that same period there were 10,000 falls and 76 fatalities that were non-work related falls around the home. Imagine if those same funds were put into reducing accidents in that area what the reduction might be — some 3000 at a quick count!


Fortunately the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research is carrying out a full study on the costs and implications of the current falls from height regime.


Many keenly await the outcome of this which should be available before year end. We will then finally have an authoritative independent yardstick to measure the value and effectiveness of the falls from height regime.


This will provide both sides of the argument with the facts and accurate data that have been so sorely missing from the inception of this campaign.

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