Towards a Safer Building Industry

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-By John Boley

Something we hear quite frequently from some of the country’s top builders, large and small alike, is that they believe there is just too much red tape in the industry. For some, OH&S has simply gone too far; for others it’s the energy compliance regulations and the upcoming carbon tax; for yet others the apparent need to become ISO 9000-qualified is a hurdle too far.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to hear the Housing Industry Association (HIA) calling for even more regulation. Its third annual Building Better Cities conference, held in Melbourne at the end of March, was devoted to the thorny topic of compliance of building products and materials and entitled Building Products – a compliance-free zone?

The HIA is not simply demanding more red tape, though, but highlighting what it sees as a growing menace in the industry in Australia. “The problem of non-genuine and non-tested building materials and components making their way into in residential building is growing,” said HIA Managing Director Shane Goodwin. “Our view is that regardless of where something is manufactured, it should meet Australian standards.”

Indeed, with more and more products being manufactured offshore, and increased access to these products by individuals (both professionals and DIY-ers), the need to focus on compliance has never been greater, said Shane. “A key concern is that the evolution of compliance and enforcement in Australia has not kept pace with changes to our economy and how or where products are manufactured or sourced.” Attendees of the Melbourne meeting were shown numerous examples of products being imported into this country and used in construction “that are not fit for their intended purpose. This can have consequences such as subsequent repair costs, damage to the reputation of the building industry and potentially threats to human health and safety.”

Speaking about electrical safety and integrity, Damien Cummins, Executive General Manager of Clipsal by Schneider Electric, illustrated what he called “The worst type of counterfeit – unable to perform its primary function as a safety device” in the form of a miniature circuit breaker modelled on a Clipsal product but lacking any working parts. There was no arc shield and the item afforded no protection whatever. Damien stressed that “we at Clipsal have become increasingly concerned over product safety issues. We have invested in our own education campaign, we are working with our peers, state electrical regulators and the Australian Industry Group to educate market actors, we are testing suspect products and advising authorities, and we understand and act on our legal rights,” in areas such as trademarks and registered designs. “We are a champion for the cause,” he added.

The dangers of often very cheap, unsafe and illegal ‘knock-off’ products are not limited to safety (though that in itself makes the issue important). Damien showed another example, a copy of a twin switched power outlet, which had been purchased directly by the installer and which lacked any engraving or wording as per mandatory Australian Standards. The product failed in the field and as a result the installing electrician was charged, fined and lost his licence.

As a builder, said Damien, there are two potential scenarios that could force you to take responsibility. First, you might buy non compliant product directly, assuming the risk around product selection; or secondly, maybe you don’t choose your electrical contractor carefully. After all, how much do you know about their choices?

He reminded attendees that builders have the right to (and should) check the authenticity of the products being installed, demand known products or/ brands on-site, “demand that the electrical contractors you engage purchase from trusted wholesalers, refuse to allow product substitution and only use electrical contractors who you can trust.”

Tony Rusten of GWA Group reminded delegates that too much of the regulatory framework is in fact not mandatory. For example, “anyone can import or manufacture and sell a plumbing product without Watermark. It is only an offence if installed on potable water supply.”

While calling for a full review and revision of relevant legislation, HIA’s Shane Goodwin stressed the need to keep it lean. “I’m sure everybody here agrees that a new version must not be cost prohibitive, bureaucratic or cumbersome. Also industry led options need to be carefully considered.”

An industry product registration scheme, supported by the regulators, can fit into the legislative framework, and as John Thwaites points out, there already is a gateway in the Building Code of Australia. This needs to be part of the solution – using industry accepted documentary evidence to verify conformance does not have to be the only pathway.

Compliance schemes will require cooperation between stakeholders in each product sector. HIA is happy to act as convener of that process, but it must be industry driven and supported by government, said Shane. But something really needs to be done, he said – “our message is that it’s just not worth the risk of using inferior materials and components” – and not least in order to protect the large number of companies that do manufacture to Australian Standards – “manufacturers who do the right thing are being disadvantaged against those that neither invest in producing products that meet Australian standards nor programs to demonstrate compliance.” Clearly, HIA and others have here in their sights the flood of ‘cheap’ imports largely from Asia that have caused all manner of IP issues in many industries, not just construction.

So what is to be done? What concrete (and don’t forget that materials as well as products are targets for counterfeiters) action is wanted? The summit identified the problem that inconsistent compliance regimes led to an uneven playing field between manufacturers that comply with standards and those that do not. A central plank of the HIA response to the problem will be the development of options for an industry led product registration scheme. “To be a success, a scheme will need the buy-in of government as well as industry, so it will require an extensive consultation process,” explained Shane. “But the extent of the problem means that we can’t afford to ignore it.”

In addition to exploring a product compliance register, HIA has undertaken to establish an evidentiary basis of the extent of the problem; work with the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) in a review of the existing Codemark and Watermark certification schemes; work collaboratively with existing credible industry based compliance programs to ensure their ongoing success; develop an industry education and information program to increase the understanding amongst builders, contractors and suppliers about the importance of compliance; and continue to support buildings standards that include Deemed to Satisfy solutions and press for the modernisation of the housing provisions in the Building Code of Australia.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

July 10, 2020, 5:12 PM AEST