Building safety - it’s everyone’s business

By Jeff Willing*
Friday, 29 October, 2010

I was honoured to be appointed as the new Federal Safety Commissioner in July this year, and I look forward to working closely with stakeholders in the building and construction industry to improve its OHS performance.

I see my focus, as the Federal Safety Commissioner, being to continue the commitment of the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner (OFSC) to drive and promote cultural change within the industry, to aim for an incident-free industry where employees feel safety is a priority. As one of the largest purchasers of building and construction work nationally, the Australian Government is committed to being a model client and influencing OHS outcomes for the industry.

Of course, cultural change has to be promoted, practised and driven from senior management, and everyone has to be fully trained to develop a common understanding, commitment and shared goals from within the organisation. However, it is imperative that all industry participants demonstrate a strong commitment to developing a safety culture within their companies and across the building and construction industry, not just leave it to be dealt with by a select few.

One strong driver for cultural change in the building and construction industry is the Australian Government’s Building and Construction OHS Accreditation Scheme (the Scheme).

Under the Scheme, contractors must have an accredited OHS management system in place and all work must be performed safely, not only on time and on budget. The Scheme helps to ensure the benefits of investing in high-quality OHS practices are recognised. It operates such that, subject to certain thresholds, only head contractors who are accredited under the Scheme can enter into contracts for building and construction projects funded by the Australian Government.

Almost five years after the establishment of the OFSC, there are over 200 accredited builders and almost 400 projects across Australia to which the Scheme applies. It is encouraging to note the improved performance of these builders covered by the Scheme. For example, for the July to December 2009 reporting period, the median lost time injury (LTI) frequency rate for accredited builders fell to its lowest ever recorded level of 2.51 LTIs per million hours worked. The Scheme is also growing rapidly, with the number of companies accredited under the Scheme increasing by 35% in the 12 months up to December 2009. Over the same time, the number of projects reported under the Scheme increased by 78%.

As part of my commitment to improving safety in the building and construction industry, reaccreditation to the Scheme is being used as an opportunity to focus on high-risk hazards including mobile plant and equipment, working at heights and electrical in particular. Companies who have applied for reaccreditation will be subject to an on-site audit where high-risk hazards will be closely reviewed. A focus on these risks will give my Office greater insight into, and understanding of, the issues accredited builders, under the Scheme, are facing. Valuable data from these audits will assist builders to make improvements in these areas.

I will not only continue to lead my Office in promoting OHS in the building industry and raising OHS awareness, but I will continue to work with the industry to make building worksites safer. Instituting cultural change doesn’t happen overnight, but I believe we have made significant inroads to achieving a safe industry. We still have a long way to go though, and I look forward to the challenges ahead.

*Jeff Willing took up the position of Federal Safety Commissioner in July 2010, following the recent retirement of Helen Marshall. Willing has worked in several areas in the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, most recently in the Building Industry Branch, and brings to the position a working knowledge of the issues facing the building and construction industry. Willing will continue to focus his efforts towards achieving a building and construction industry where no one is harmed.

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