Safe Journeys

A1 Highways

From its base halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast (the company has satellite operations out of Sydney, Adelaide and Townsville too), A1’s Managing Director Ian McLean explains that the ambition was to have a base in every state – Western Australia and a presence with VicRoads in Melbourne are priorities at present. “It takes time though to get on the approval lists,” he explains.

The company was established eight years ago and has been in expansion mode ever since; Ian himself originated in the UK and worked with local governments there before Transport Main Roads (TMR) enticed him down to work on managing barriers systems for the government. Joining the private sector in the form of A1 Highways last year, he has brought with him knowledge of the systems and the approvals procedures (he was on the standards committee of AustRoads that approves products and systems).

Self-evidently, products and systems must be approved before they can be used on Australia’s roads, but the same does not apply so effectively to the companies that install them – and this is what Ian and his peers are pushing for. “You have to get yourself on approval lists first of all as having quality systems in place. But what we are pushing for is to be accredited with qualifications for installing the products so the people working for you would have approved certification that they have the appropriate experience.

According to Ian, there are unfortunately a lot of companies out there employing people who are not suitably qualified. This extends not only to sectors such as guardrails; he says the problem is more widespread and points to recent public concern about roofing insulation systems installation and subsequent deaths. “When I was in the UK, there were no substantial construction sites or companies that did not have accredited workers,” he shares. “It was a necessity for whatever you were doing in the building and civil construction business, whether you were driving a forklift, operating a Hilti gun or installing a solar panel. You needed to prove that the people working for you were accredited and had the appropriate expertise. Unfortunately that is not the case here.”

Yet the pressure is building, and most states recognise the need for such a system, concerned about the amount of money that is “being wasted through inferior installations where cowboys are installing sub-standard systems,” as well as the increasing practice of using steel sourced in China that may or may not be of the grade and specification required. There is a proven need, Ian says, for qualifications for installers and approved materials. In the UK this system is backed up by policing of the industry. “It can be done via a simple line in the spec such as ‘all steel needs a certification and every so many batches may or will be tested’. That’s all we want – a level playing field.”

A1 Highways has been audited by TMR and is on its approval system. “When I was on the RTA committee in Parramatta, we had representatives from each of the states,” Ian explains. The aim was to build some unity across the states, effectively a federal standard and system. “They are crash testing different systems and trying to unify the different standards,” he says. “This would raise the bar. With something as important as a safety barrier system that is saving lives on a daily basis, why would you allow someone to install it wrongly?” Ian has been lobbying for many years and has made a lot of progress, “but there are always more hurdles to get over.” He says so many people are having problems with sub-standard installations that the issue deserves a wider audience.

The current situation hurts reputable and qualified operators, Ian believes, who have to sit by and watch unqualified companies bring in uncertified product from offshore, undercutting pricing more reflective of quality while not being up to the same standards. This is not about enshrining A1 Highways as a sole – qualified – supplier, he adds; competition is healthy. Indeed, “we want four or five – or more – companies who put the quality systems in place as we have and ensure they check things when they install systems, making sure staff are properly trained and not just brought in off the street.” That might raise the price a little – but Ian has investigated enough failures. “I have photographic evidence of where systems have ripped like paper.”

That almost ignores the further question of liability. It is likely none of us would wish deliberately to point our ute or sedan at the barrier, but it’s more than likely that if worse comes to worst, we want that barrier to prevent us from falling off the bridge. If it doesn’t, we – or our relatives – are going to be a mite annoyed. Ian says one state’s roads authority recently faced a situation where on one project every single system “had been installed incorrectly.” The potential for litigation is immense and the ‘accident waiting to happen’ could occur at any time on almost any stretch of Australian road.

Aside from government work, Ian says, A1 is the biggest installer in Queensland. “We do direct work for the government and also indirect as a subcontractor to the big players.” But the current situation means it’s always the lowest price that wins a tender, whereas when he was in the UK the location, the methodology and other factors would be more important. Nevertheless, A1 is more than keeping its head above water due to the diversity of the business. Having started with steel and wire barriers the company diversified into concrete and then into what might be termed ancillaries – including the very important signs division (a complete range of signage options – warning, hazard, regulatory or directional signs on single, double, truss, cantilever or gantry support systems) and sound barriers (importing a technologically advanced European system of highly absorbent, lightweight, aluminium noise barriers, designed for outdoor noise mitigation, that has aroused interest and is likely to be chosen for a number of upcoming projects).

Nowadays A1 has also become involved in the installation of solar panel arrays, the larger commercial variety, supplying systems from Clenergy Australia, one of the country’s largest suppliers of ground-mounted solar systems, and has secured multiple small-scale contracts throughout Southeast Queensland. To date, A1 has installed more than 100kW of Clenergy’s Solar Terrace system, including a system in Tonga (please see sidebar for further details).

There are a number of major road upgrades – Bruce Highway is one case in point – where A1 is installing systems, so it’s not as if all projects have overlooked the quality aspect. However, Ian is keen to sound the warning to all who will listen – in the private sector as well as the public – that safety systems that are meant to save lives are not items to be bought simply on price and installed by unqualified people and contractors.

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 14, 2020, 2:01 PM AEST