High-rise workers trembling

KATIE CHAPMAN AND LANE NICHOLS
Last updated 05:00 01/06/2012

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Staff could soon refuse to work in earthquake-prone buildings as unions move to add a quake-safe workplace to collective agreements.

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union will vote next month on a remit requiring employers to prove their buildings are safe and carry out strengthening work if a workplace is below the earthquake code.

Union officials are not ruling out strikes if employers refuse to strengthen unsafe buildings. But employers say the legality of any such action would have to be tested in court.

Employment lawyer Peter Cullen said the proposed clause was interesting but complicated, and the courts would ultimately have to rule on strikes.

"Workers are entitled to a safe place of work. The law is clear on that.

"[But] I'm sure you can't go on strike in every structure that doesn't meet the earthquake code, otherwise half of Wellington would be on strike. I don't think the courts would countenance that."

The move comes as the fallout from the Christchurch quakes has seen more at-risk buildings closing in Wellington, property owners struggling to fund upgrades, and authorities assessing crucial infrastructure.

Property owners, including IRD, Housing New Zealand and ACC, have evacuated their buildings recently after engineers' assessments that strengthening was needed.

The union clause would require employers to provide engineers' assessments proving their buildings were safe. It is expected to pass at next month's annual conference.

National secretary Bill Newson said the remit would make the union give "priority in its bargaining plans to requiring employers to undertake earthquake assessments on buildings".

If buildings were found to be unsafe, employers would be expected to have them strengthened. "The employer's obligation is to provide a safe workplace."

He expected agreements to be negotiated, but he would not rule out strikes if necessary, saying officials would "explore legal options".

The Pike River mine disaster had shown how important it was to make sure staff did not work in unsafe environments, he said. "That's not going to happen again."

Workers nationwide had become increasingly concerned about building safety since the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, which killed 185 people.

A 7.1-magnitude quake in Wellington is predicted to kill 1500 people and injure 13,000.

Public Service Association spokeswoman Liz Brown said its members were also more concerned about building safety. But the issue was being dealt with during discussions with the sector, rather than formal contract clauses.

Employers have said the EPMU moves are a "step too far", and unnecessary in light of New Zealand's "robust" health and safety legislation.

The Northern Employers and Manufacturers Association said many employers did not own the buildings they worked in, so the clause could target the wrong people.

Most employers cared about their workers and did not want to put them at risk, employment services manager David Lowe said. "We've been through the experience of Christchurch and we've got to do the right thing."

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Under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, employers were already required to identify hazards and eliminate risks. Workers could strike on health and safety grounds under current laws.

"The health and safety grounds have to be a reasonably serious issue but [that] would be for a court to decide," Mr Lowe said.

UNDER CONSIDERATION

1 Rintoul St, corner Riddiford St, will get $20,000 to assist in "heritage considerations" as part of seismic strengthening work.

The Jaycee Building in Willis St will get $12,500 for seismic work to help bring walls and stairwells up to building standards.

Courtenay Place's Adelphi Finance building gets $18,750 to help preserve heritage values on the facade while strengthening work is done.

Strengthening work at 130 Riddiford St in Newtown will get $10,000.

The Morgan Building in Cuba St gets $18,000 to aid soundness and weather protection for heritage values during quake-strengthening work.

Buildings at 3A-3C Moxham Ave in Hataitai get $10,000 for strengthening and to help "ensure public safety and protect a main transport route".

The building at 12 A and B Constable St in Newtown will receive $12,500 for strengthening work.

Wellington Downtown Backpackers at 1 Bunny St receives $15,000 for infill masonry work to strengthen the building.

- The Dominion Post

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