Collapse has expensive consequences

Sunday, 19 February, 2006

Two companies have escaped convictions on health and safety charges but have paid significant penalties after a demolition job went wrong at a Melbourne shopping centre.

Construction Engineering (Aust) Pty Ltd and Guilfoyle Wreckers Pty Ltd each pleaded guilty recently to one charge laid under the Occupational Health and Safety Act*.

Lawyers for both companies told Magistrate Leslie Fleming the collapse of a massive concrete slab at the Whitehorse Plaza Shopping Complex at Box Hill had serious financial consequences.

Construction Engineering told the court the incident of 9 September 2002 meant it lost 80% of its profit on the refurbishment project at the centre. Guilfoyle Wreckers said it lost $250,000 as a result of the incident.

Magistrate Fleming fined Construction Engineering (Aust) Pty Ltd $10,000 and imposed costs of $8805.96. Guilfoyle Wreckers Pty Ltd was fined $20,000 and ordered to pay costs of $8168.96.

Construction Engineering appointed Guilfoyle Wreckers as the demolition sub-contractor for the centre's redevelopment.

Magistrate Fleming was told Guilfoyle employees were to demolish a concrete slab on level four of the complex to allow a new travelator between the third and fourth levels to be installed.

A concrete saw cut around the perimeter after which the concrete was to be broken out leaving the steel reinforcing to be removed later.

WorkSafe's investigation found the saw cut, combined with the presence of an expansion joint within the area to be demolished compromised the slab's structural integrity.

A four-tonne excavator was then driven on to the slab. The area was evacuated and cordoned-off when the slab sagged.

Workers returning the next day found one end of the slab had collapsed on to the floor below. No one was hurt by the collapse of the 104 tonne slab which measured 23 metres by 7 metres and was 25cm thick.

The Director of WorkSafe's Construction and Utilities Program, Geoff Thomas, said the workplace health and safety regulator had high expectations with demolition operations.

"This case comes just days before a campaign targeting health and safety in the demolition industry. It is an example of what can happen when work is not properly planned or supervised.

Mr Thomas said safety inspectors across Australia and New Zealand had joined forces for the demolition campaign. At least 260 site visits begin on 20 February.

"While no one was hurt in this case, slightly changed circumstances could have had deadly consequences. The demolition industry must understand its legal obligations.

"If sub-standard or dangerous work practices are found, inspectors will take enforcement and compliance action to rectify the situation."

Issues which contractors will need to have addressed include:

  • structural stability
  • adequate supervision
  • working at height
  • site security
  • public protection
  • traffic management
  • hazardous substances control (such as asbestos and lead)

"Although there has not been a work-related fatality in Victoria's construction industry for more than 13 months, the possibility of death or serious injury is always present when safe work practices, appropriate training, adequate supervision, and job planning are not in place."

* The charges:

Guilfoyle Wreckers Pty Ltd

Sections 21(1) & (2)(a) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1985

Section 21

(1) An employer shall provide and maintain so far as is practicable for employees a working environment that is safe and without risks to health.

(2) Without in any way limiting the generality of sub-section (1), an employer contravenes that sub-section if the employer fails— (a) to provide and maintain plant and systems of work that are so far as is practicable safe and without risks to health;

Construction Engineering Pty Ltd:

Section 22 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 1985

Every employer and every self-employed person shall ensure so far as is practicable ensure that persons (other than the employees of the employer or self-employed person) are not exposed to risks to their health and safety from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer of self-employed person.

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