Fatally unsafe at speed

Nice picture huh. all those men in orange putting on quite the frenzied display as they erected a stage for the Laneways festival in Wynard Quarter, Auckland yesterday.

You might want to click to zoom in on this next one, as the picture is large and the text small. The text in red refers to the major unsafe acts that this single picture reveals.

To summarise, while all of the workers were wearing high visibility clothing, and everybody working at heights wore a harness, most of the harnesses were not actually being used. The worst, and it’s hard to get worse than working at heights withut a safety restraint, were the two gentlemen cantilevered out over the front of the structure. One of them is holding himself on with just his legs, while using both hands to work levering a piece of metal. At least there is nobody underneath him if he falls, so only one fatality would result.

I stood and watched for a few minutes, and was frankly shocked. It all seemed like an elaborate game, conducted with very high energy and yet with no regard for human lives.  At any large Australian plant any staff or contrator on site who walked past this theatre would immediately stop the work and it would not resume for quite some time, if at all. At plant’s I’ve worked in these folks would be sent home immediately, and lengthy investigations would ensue to ensure these acts never happened again.

I’ve stopped work on a few occasions myself, and have even done so on a handful of times when I observed fatal risks. At almost all the plants where I did this the underlying problem was fixed and the work was redesigned or the person re-trained (or removed) to be able to be performed safely. Nobody likes to be responsible for killing people, or to allow for it to happen in front of you, or to be the GM to have to front up to the widow and family, and front up they would.

I’ve circled the workers who I feel, in just this photo, are exposed to fatal risk.

I count eight out of the 14 workers on the structure, from this photo. I think that is some sort of sick record for me. Those other workers don’t get off responsibility either, as every person visible is responsible if one of their unsecured mates plunges to his death. It’s not ok to work with people who put themselves at risk, and it is certainly not ok to put yourself at risk in front of your peers and, especially, juniors.

What is going on?

There are four underlying issues. The staff are not living the safety value, the organisation is not safety driven and there is no demand from their customer nor the regulator for safe acts.

The Unsafe Staff

It’s clear from above that the staff are not concerned about safety, beyond quietly clipping-in in response to some guy taking photos (that’s what a few did). Safety appears to be a secondary consideration at best, with the speed and perhaps quality of the work coming first.

The Unsafe Organisation

It appears that their organisation, Camelspace, also does not prioritise safety. None of the senior staff have an explicit safety role:

 While that isn’t necessarily condemning evidence, a search of their website returns just 10 links to the word ‘Safety’, and none of them are on any of the front pages and none in a compelling way. ‘Safety’ is, for example, referenced in a 2010 Quality Statement, which also brags “its record is impeccable with zero Lost Time Accidents (LTA).” I wouldn’t brag. When I see unsafe behaviour like that combined with a zero injury rate, it is often a sign of underreporting, and sadly often an early indicator of a fatality.  I’d hate for a fatality to be the trigger for the introduction of a safety culture into Camelspace, but that’s often what happens in other businesses.

The Unsafe Customer

The purchaser of Camelspaces services, Laneways Festival I guess is also at fault, as is the owner of the property, which is perhaps Auckland Waterfront (I do not know). They have not, clearly, insisted on a safety-first approach, and been willing to help enforce it.

I am not at all certain, but this pair of individuals are the foreman (identified to me by a worker) and perhaps a client representative. A safety conscious client representative does not walk onto a site in jandals, just as a safety conscious foreman would wear high viz and a helmet, and never stand near people working at heights.

Another problem was that I was inside a barrier of cones (not a barrier for people, just cars) when I took this picture. There is no way that any of us should have been where we were standing without PPE, induction and agreement of the supervisor. (PPE is protective personal equipment).

The client, not the scaffolding company, is liable for, well, everything. This from the standard terms of trade:


68.) The Client shall accept full responsibility for and shall indemnify the Supplier against all claims for injury to persons and/or damage to property caused by, or in connection with or arising out of, the use, erection, dismantling, storage or transportation of Equipment (be that performed by the Client or its nominees or by the Supplier) however arising including the negligence of third parties and against all costs and charges in connection with such claims whether arising under statute or common law.

The Unsafe Regulator

I’m not sure what is going in, but recent reports have made it clear that in New Zealand our safety regulations are soft compared to Australia and other jurisdictions. Even those regulations are often well underneath what the larger firms require. For all I know what I observed may well be legal and deemed safe here, but if not, then it was also clear that the risk of a regulator observing and reacting negatively and with force was essentially zero.

That’s not good enough. And let’s place the majority of the remedial effort here not on the staff, nor the scaffolding company and nor the customer, but on the absence of an effective program for national workplace safety culture. An effective program means education and coaching, but it also means an effective enforcement program with some very sharp teeth for egregious breaches. It clearly does not exist or if so it is so limited in scope as to be meaningless. About 100 people die each year from workplace incidents, about a third as many as on the road. Wake up New Zealand.

Health and Safety seems tobe part of MBIE, so perhaps Stephen Joyce can be the one to effect the change. It’s a smart thing to do for business regardless, as companies with decent safety processes are invariably much better run as well.

What to do

On site I had a chat to the foreman. He was very receptive, which is great considering I was just a punter watching. We talked about high viz, working at heights and about harnesses. It’s good to focus on the key risks. His response was that every worker was trained and had a harness if working at heights. He also said that Camelspace had the responsibility for the safety of the build.

For me the workers were otherwise very competent, and well trained on safety, as working from heights and using harnesses is not for the naive. But training and experience is no substitute for thinking about safety before you do any work. So as a worker, clipping a harness onto a safe point may take a few seconds, and is frankly a pain, but please accept that it is a necessary condition of doing the job and returning home to your family and mates safely.

For the suppliers, I suspect that it was just chance that this one particular supplier was the one I saw, please factor the extra time and energy doing the job safety takes into every contract. If you are being beaten on price, then sell yourselves on the safety-first approach, and make sure customers are aware of the cowboys out there. Perhaps contact your peers and start a safety-first mandate (not a pricing cartel mind you) across the industry, so that you are all competing on the same level.  For larger jobs like this, the executives should insist on a safety officer on site, and make sure that one of the top two or three roles in the company is safety, that safety is the first topic of every meeting and that anyone can and should stop unsafe work. I need to say more then you need to learn more.

For customers, it’s your role to insist on a safety first approach, understanding what that means by working with the best, and being prepared to pay for it. Use someone on your side who knows this stuff, and if it’s part of your business to build lots of things, then have someone in the senior team or board who knows it as well. Specifically, if you are event organisers, then the person responsible for safety should have overview of the erection and dismantling processes.

For the New Zealand Government and other regulators. Please, Please Please. If you don’t understand what good is, then there are plenty of kiwis with Australian and South African mine and plant experience who do, so reach out to them. I’d be happy to help.

One last photo. That’s a scaffolding pole in middair there, but as this was  bit later, there were a few more harnesses on.

Nobody is to blame for this, and a witch-hunt is not how we solve the underlying issues. Instead we need to systematically understand the root causes and work to fix them. So my apologies to the workers, the company and to their customers. But we have to start somewhere.


Published by Lance Wiggs


2 replies on “Fatally unsafe at speed”

  1. Good morning Lance. I am the training manager for a H&S training company based on the North Shore. I would like permission to reproduce your photographs for training purposes. We would of course not make any reference to the principal, contractor or exact location so as to protect the innocent, but would use it as a valuable tool for Hazard Identification and Safe Working at Height. Best regards.


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