Tunnel vision on safety

Safety incidents

The Airport Link tunnel project in Queensland. Picture: Liam Kidston Source: The Australian

FOR Andrew Ramsay, it was the plethora of shiny, green, energy drink cans that told him all was not right on Brisbane’s Airport Link tunnel project.

“Everywhere we went there were cans of V,” says Ramsay, a union safety officer. “Workers were contracted in from other jobs and doing night shifts. They must have been doing everything they could to stay awake.”

Peter Ong, an official with the Electrical Trades Union who has worked in the construction industry for more than 25 years, says: “I’ve never seen a worse job in my life. It was a f … ing debacle”.

If this sounds like union hyperbole, consider the actions of Stephen Sasse, a former senior executive with the John Holland Group, the Leighton-owned builder that was in a joint venture with Leighton’s subsidiary, Thiess, to construct the project.

Faced with three serious safety incidents in less than three weeks, Sasse, the company’s then head of human resources, industrial relations and safety, wrote a damning memo in 2010 to John Holland management which read, in part:

“In my seven years with John Holland, I have never seen any project or management team that was so cavalier about the company’s OHS (occupational health and safety) system, principles and values and I have grave doubts about the management’s team’s capability in safety.”

Seventeen months on, Sam Beveridge, a mechanical fitter, died after he was struck in the head with a falling beam while working in the project’s southbound tunnel.

Thiess is being prosecuted by the state safety authorities in relation to the fatality while the national safety regulator, Comcare, intends to launch Federal Court proceedings against John Holland this week.

Billed as the nation’s largest privately funded transport infrastructure project, construction on the 6.7km Airport Link commenced in November 2008 and eventually opened for traffic in July last year.

According to the company, two tunnels were dug using two of the largest tunnel boring machines to operate in Australia. Requiring 22 operators, they dug through 85m of rock each week.

Each machine weighed 3000 tonnes and was 165m long with a cutter head measuring 12.48m in diameter. They travelled 55m below the surface at the deepest section of tunnel.

Given it was the first time that particular tunnelling technique had been used in Australia, Comcare says it deemed the project to be of a “high-risk nature” and increased its regulatory oversight of the project.

Between 2009 and last year, Comcare says it undertook 64 inspections and investigations “to ensure workplace health and safety at the site was of an appropriate standard”.

It also says inspectors made 36 site visits as part of a co-regulation program with Work Health and Safety Queensland to verify safety standards.

But Ong, the ETU’s assistant state secretary, questioned the effectiveness of the Comcare inspectors. “They were an absolute joke on the project,” he says. “They would have cups of tea and scones with John Holland but wouldn’t do much else. At least, the Queensland WHS would come out when we asked them.”

Ong says if employees made mistakes, it was due to deadline pressure and fatigue from the long hours they worked.

“These people were working seven days a week, 12 hours a day,” he says. “I had some people working eight weeks straight without a day off. They were given incentive payments. If they missed a day, if they had a day off, they would miss out on the incentive payment.”

Ramsay, a safety co-ordinator with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, says “the pressure to get the workers to build it on time was just crazy”.

John Holland declined to comment directly on the allegations raised by Ong and Ramsay.

In his 2010 memo to management, Sasse says he

“held serious concerns as to the standard of safety that is being delivered” on the project. Two audits were carried by the joint venture partners. While the second audit saw a “limited level’ of improvement, it was “not, in my view, sufficient to alleviate out concerns”.

Accusing management of actively avoiding any involvement by John Holland in their safety management, Sasse wrote:

“reporting is deliberately late, ensuring that our staff cannot get any meaningful involvement in investigative processes and their outcomes. Statutory incident notifications to Comcare are occurring well before we become aware of the incident which causes me some embarrassment in my dealings with our primary regulator”.

He says he “cannot effectively discharge my responsibilities” to John Holland and the directors in relation to the company’s corporate occupational health and safety function. As John Holland’s nominated officer for Comcare, “I cannot allow a situation where I am knowingly aware of a project which is operating independently and in contempt of all of poor OHS governance systems in circumstances where I cannot positively influence the project in accordance with my legislative obligations”.

Sasse writes that the project management must appoint a new safety director or he would seek to have changes made to John Holland’s self-insurance licences.

Questioned by The Australian about the Sasse memo, a John Holland spokesman says it was “responded to appropriately”. But sources close to the project dispute this. “Nothing happened,” one former senior employee says. “In many respects, it got worse.”

In its statement, John Holland refused to detail what action was taken in response to Sasse.

“Safety is our top priority at John Holland. We are committed to achieving safe and healthy workplaces on all our projects,” it says. “Safety audits are a regular occurrence on all our worksites and all safety-related information that is provided to John Holland and its directors is acted upon appropriately. Accordingly, the memo of May 24, 2010, was responded to appropriately by the board and John Holland.

“John Holland deeply regrets the tragedy of Mr Beveridge’s fatal injury. As a Comcare investigation is under way into that matter, John Holland cannot comment further.”

A Comcare spokesman says “serious safety concerns” were identified during four investigations conducted on the project. “One of these investigations involved the fatality of Sam Beveridge,” he says. “Six prohibition notices and five improvement notices were also issued, all of which were complied with.

“Breaches were identified in procedures and process failures, inadequate job safety and environmental analysis and lack of training and supervision.”

In addition to the legal action over Beveridge’s death, Comcare says it is taking Federal Court action in relation to another worker being injured on the project.

In a written statement, the Office of Fair and Safe Work Queensland provided details of compliance notices issued over the project.

In 2009, it issued two prohibition notices relating to hazardous work environments, while one prohibition notice and seven improvement notices were issued in 2010. They related to hazardous work environments, unsafe work practices and the failure to have machinery inspected before use.

In 2011, Queensland authorities issued 11 prohibition notices, 39 improvement notices and two infringement notices relating hazardous work environments, unsafe work practices, scaffolding, inadequate housekeeping practices, insufficient lighting and maintenance of equipment.

Last year, a further two prohibition notices and six improvement notices were issued. They related to unsafe work practices, housekeeping, supervision and public safety.

In relation to Beveridge’s death, deputy state coroner Christine Clements made her findings in January this year. However, they have not been made public and the state regulator refused to comment.

Dave Noonan, the national secretary of the CFMEU’s construction division, said there should be a proper public explanation about the circumstances of Beveridge’s death.

While his death was a tragedy, and the union sympathised with his family and friends, Noonan says the union continues to have “deep concern about John Holland’s safety record”.

“They owe the public and the workers on the project an explanation,” he says.

“You have two companies in John Holland and Thiess, both part of the Leighton Group, that seem to have more interest in having a turf war with each other than addressing very serious safety issues on the job.”

In February this year, just seven months after it opened, the airport link tunnel’s operators, BrisConnections, went into receivership, and Leighton wrote off its $200m investment in BrisConnections because of poor traffic flows.

Last month Maurice Blackburn launched a class action on behalf of more than 200 shareholders alleging investors who bought shares between August 2010 and April 2011 were not told the extent of losses relating to the Airport Link, the company’s desalination project in Victoria and a separate joint venture in Dubai. Leighton denies the claims.

Sasse refused to comment for this article. The family of Beveridge, who left a wife and son, did not want to speak.

Peter Ong is critical of federal authorities for taking more than two years to take court action over Beveridge’s death.

“They should be ensuring a response as quickly as possible so any breaches or failings can be rectified,” he says. “Our main aim is to stop it happening again.”

  • Ewin Hannan, Industrial Editor
  • The Australian
  • November 19, 2013 12:00AM

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