Why The Pink Batts Inquiry Will Change Nothing


When I was a young cadet, an electrician was killed on my site. He died attempting to connect a live wire incorrectly tagged as “not in use”.

The coronial inquest discovered that a range of poor practices had culminated in his death: a lack of correct testers on site, the lack of a proper set of tags and poor communication between shifts led to the death of a young man. His employer was held accountable.

Four similar deaths occurred during Labor’s Energy Efficient Homes Package. Matthew Fuller, Mitchell Sweeney, Ruben Barnes and Marcus Wilson all died installing mineral fibre insulation into existing properties.

But with Abbott’s Royal Commission now underway, it is likely that Kevin Rudd, Peter Garrett and Julia Gillard will become the central focus of any apportioned blame. That does not sit easily with many in the industry.

Construction is a dangerous industry. Last year 20 people died in work related incidents. To combat the dangers of the industry, we have robust workplace health and safety requirements. But we also have a mandatory minimum level of training that everyone must receive before they can step foot onsite.

If the rules are followed by well-trained workers, an active construction site should be no less safe than any other workplace.

Matthew Fuller was a qualified electrician who had completed the mandatory "white card" training, but had not completed the project specific training regarding the installation of insulation.

He was employed by a telemarketing company trading as Queensland Homes Insulation (QHI) and Countrywide Insulation. According to the QLD Coroner, Fuller's employer, the then 19-year-old Chris McKay, "was of the view the laying of foil insulation with metal staples was not a high risk practise for him as an electrician or for someone who had been appropriately trained."

The web of companies run by the McKay family speaks to the style of management that QHI operated under. The lack of cogent direction, the "pyramid" style of subcontracting and the assumptions made of employees' competence and training, created an environment where an effective health and safety programme would be impossible to implement or maintain. Matthew Fuller died when a metal staple made contact with a live cable, killing him instantly.

Nineteen-year-old Marcus Wilson died from acute hyperthermia from excessive temperatures, poor ventilation and dehydration. The coroner’s report stated he showed clear signs of heat stress and fatigue that were not recognised. He was drinking energy drinks rather than water before he died.

Wilson was not employed by Pride, the company doing the installation, whose managing director, Ryan Glover, had no knowledge that Marcus was working that day. He had arranged with a subcontractor to stand in as a replacement for his friend Calum McLean.

Mitchell Sweeney died in similar circumstances to Matthew Fuller. Mitchell had completed the appropriate training, but during installation of foil insulation a metal staple punctured a lighting cable, electrifying the foil. His body or head came into contact with the roofing material, completing the circuit, and 240 volts passed through his body, killing him instantly.

The QLD Coronor report found that:

"Mr Lindsay of Titan confirmed that the reason they used foil was because the supply for the batts became problematic due to the rapid expansion of the HIP. Further, they were of the view that foil was easier to transport. He said that they didn’t turn their minds to the potential hazard involved in using metal staples. Mr Lindsay also believed foil was easier to install in “Queenslanders” as you could roll it out and staple it to the beams Mr Lindsay didn’t know that the foil was electrically conductive."

The youngest installer to die, Ruben Barnes, died when he came into contact with a live steel section of roof that had become conductive due to poor workmanship by a previous contractor. He was also using an extendable metal pole to push the insulation into the roof cavity.

Ruben’s employer made no attempt to induct, train or even confirm whether Ruben had the most basic health and safety training. He was to "learn on the job" with another worker. Ultimately his death was unavoidable from within the confines of the project.

The argument tendered by the Liberal party is that Labor rushed out an incomplete and potentially dangerous stimulus package and it was this haste that led to the deaths and house fires. Yet an analysis of the events surrounding the deaths points to a different reason.

Had the companies involved established effective and consistent health and safety procedures, coupled with clear protocols for dealing with subcontractors, it is likely that these fatalities could have been avoided.

So why did these companies fail their employees and subcontractors? Why were assumptions made regarding training and competence of staff? For me, the answer lies in how the then government outsourced the legislative responsibilities around health and safety to private entities.

The Construction Induction scheme, the bare minimum for industry safety, was outsourced to multiple training organisations, all with commercial pressures to issue as many "white cards" as possible.

The lack of licensing requirements for commercial builders gave rise to a scenario where to become a builder was as easy as obtaining an ABN. Without strict enforcement of Workplace Health and Safety plans, fatigue management policies and subcontractor administration, nothing in the industry will change.

What Labor failed to do is develop a department with the power to enforce current legislation and regulations. This is not to say that the Australian Building and Construction Commission is the answer. The ABCC remained mostly toothless, unable to thoroughly investigate, sanction and counsel those companies that breach the legislation.

If the Labor Government failed those four young men, it was for a much more far reaching reason than simply poorly implementing a stimulus package.

They were failed because of a systemic failure within the industry to force companies to take responsibility for the workplace health and safety of their employees and subcontractors. The questions that need to be asked and the change we need will never come from Abbott’s Royal Commission.

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