Why are you accepting fatal risks Heart of Auckland City?

<update: I’ve changed the headline and edited this post as Auckland Council deny that this is under their purview. The Whitcoulls building and the Santa are both private.

I’ve done some digging around, and it appears to be the responsibility of the Heart of the City campaign, who have a 3-day time-lapsed video of the Santa and Reindeer build (perhaps from last year?) The organisation behind the campaign is Heart of Auckland City, a downtown business association. They mention the Whitcoulls’ Santa as part of their Christmas theming of Queen street on this webpage from 2012. From their 2012 annual report we can see that the entire Christmas budget was $460,000 in 2011/12, and the Santa is mentioned again.

Contractor names that I see in the photos include Waikato Cranes/Auckland Cranes, North Shore Scaffolding, Gulf Projects>

The annual raising of the somewhat dubious Santa on the Queen St Whitcoulls was completed this weekend. I passed by and was shocked at the unsafe work practices that I saw. The most concerning fact, aside from up to five fatal risks  was the reaction by the site safety officer who yelled at me and told me to fuck off. But at least he stopped the most unsafe acts before doing so.

The blame for this rests not with the obnoxiously behaved site safety officer, who was clearly out of his depth, and nor the lead contractor, the sub contractors or the workers themselves.

No – the blame resides with the people who hired this crowd to do the work. The folks on site said this was paid for by Auckland Council, and so Auckland Council gets the blame. (I only have the word of the workers for this, so apologies if the blame lies elsewhere. However regardless it’s on Auckland Council’s patch and they should have no tolerance for this.) <update: not Auckland Council as above, but Heart of Auckland City>

Quite simply they should insist that any work performed for them is performed to a high safety standard. Placing five (at least) workers at risk of fatal harm is simply unacceptable, and the Council Heart of Auckland City should give clear direction to all contractors that they should build complete safety into all of their tender responses and work. Yes this costs more, requires more planning and thought on-site and perhaps the work will take longer. But that’s far easier than telling families that daddy isn’t coming home anymore.

I witnessed the raising of the antlers. In general I’ve circled and written about the people working. This is the first photo I took.

Assuming the men on the top are attached to something secure with their harnesses then there is nothing that isn’t safe under NZ law. It’s good, for example, to se the scaffold railing that the person in the middle of the picture is holding on to, and the two gentlemen at the top barely moved the entire time I was there, leading me to believe they were securely attached to the building.

However the work was clearly about to be very unsafe, and on a site I (or anyone else) would have stopped the job.

Now we see the fatal risk occur, above and below.

It’s important when doing a lift that everybody is aware of what’s going on, as if the load slips then people can easily die. So this was disappointing:

As was, a little later, this:

Here’s a close-up:

Meanwhile on of the workers on the lift had clambered up to the top. The work he performed was often under the lift, and it was hard to tell whether he was secured.


He was certainly very mobile.

I suspect the harness was off, but it could be argued that this photo shows evidence otherwise. Doubtful, but ideally one would ask the question.

Meanwhile the scaffolders and builders using the long ladder generally, but not always used the ladder with someone holding it. Here’s one case where someone is at least 3m above ground and the ladder unsupported.

That’s a fatal risk. In fact a ladder that high is a fatality waiting to happen, as a fatality from a fall can happen at just 2 meters. There is not much the chap at the bottom cold do if the man in the blue shirt slips. Ideally workers would clip in as they climb, or have scaffolding to make the climb safe. Quite a lot of workers climbed up and down that ladder, arguably all at fatal risk.

But things were about to get a lot worse, ultimately leading me to say something.

The chap in the presents was not only 4-5 meters above the railing, but from my angle it seemed he was at risk of falling over that railing all the way to the ground. Above he seems to be treating the risk with respect, but then he started to work.

Notice that harness is not attached to anything, and with the primary focus on the work there is serious risk of falling, especially if he is distracted by something else happening.

He was joined by a mate.

A defensive argument would be that the person on the left was inside some sort of platform, but it’s clear that the height of the barricade is well beneath is waist, and besides he is leaning over it. I suspect though that the top of the box is either flat or close to it.

Here’s the really disturbing part.

Twenty three (that I counted) workers were on the site, and none saw fit to stop any of the dangerous practices that I saw. That means that they either didn’t have the eye for the hazards, or they did but were too intimidated to say anything. As it turns out I obtained evidence that it was both.

First, with five people that I could see potentially at fatal risk, I called out across a ute to several white-hatted people observing the work. I was not as consultative as I would like to have been, but I simply pointed out that the workers were at fatal risk as they were not wearing harnesses. (Normally one would ask to stop the work, ask about the risks that people see and lead them to the answer. That was clearly not going to fly here.)

To their credit they did agree essentially instantly and stopped the work on the presents, but not the reindeer where they said the men were wearing harnesses. I have no evidence whether they were or were not.

That was good. However a minute or two later the site safety manager came over and started yelling at me.

His bullying behaviour was wildly at odds with the sort of calm authority I would expect from someone responsible for people’s safety. It seemed to me that he accepted no challenge to his authority, and that this would cast a chilling effect on anyone else on site stopping work when they observed risks. It also occurred to me that it was shocking that there was a site safety manager who had been observing the “particularly hazardous work” and yet allowing the fatal risks to occur. I politely stood my ground (on the footpath) even after being told to fuck off more than once. I did like my response to “don’t you have anything better to do?” which was “not when I see five fatal risks at once”. He tried to intimidate me to move away from the area, to stop me taking photos (too late) and to not send the photos to OSH (Occupational Health and Safety). All that of course just made me determined to write this piece and to figure out how to escalate this to “OSH”.

With fatal risks for the two people under the lift, at least two if not five workers working from heights without connected harnesses and countless trips up and down the very high ladder I feel that this was well beyond reasonableness.

But OSH, it seems, no longer actually exists. The Health and Safety Group is part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and the responsible minister is Hon Simon Bridges in his capacity as Minister of Labour. It’s all moving to Worksafe NZ on December 16th this year.

Sadly I could not find a way to easily submit this unsafe act observation on the Health and Safety website. That’s something which the new Worksafe NZ could consider, along with a simple discussion of what the public and fellow workers can look for. We all carry cameras on our phones, and if worksites know that there is a trivial way for people to submit suspected unsafe working practices then overall standards will certainly lift.

I’d like to see active @WorkplaceNZ Twitter, Facebook and email accounts, along with a simple website and form to upload photos and text from computers and mobile phones. I’d like to see those accounts fully staffed by people who proactively and positively reach out to find and fix unsafe work practices, to encourage people to send photos of both good and bad, and to write a blog on the good, the bad and positive case studies.

We need a national conversation about this, and it needs to be focussed on improving safety rather than catching people out. We need to work to remove any defensive and belligerent bullying from the system, and to help workers help each other to be safe. We need to help people commissioning work that safety is not optional, and that jobs will take longer and be more expensive so that people don’t die.

Published by Lance Wiggs


3 replies on “Why are you accepting fatal risks Heart of Auckland City?”

  1. Yeah, I agree with Toby, well done, Lance. I know you’ve worked on sites in Australia and would probably agree that NZ, by and large, is far behind Australia when it comes to safety on site. The attitude you describe from the SSO is appalling. When I worked in Australia, ladders were banned from site – only scaffolders could put them up, which of course had to be signed off.


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