Government urges rebuild safety action

Construction workers could die and taxpayers will be faced with a $80 million bill if urgent action is not taken to make the Christchurch rebuild safer, the Government fears.

The stark warning from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) coincides with the death of a 47-year-old Christchurch man who was struck by a forklift yesterday.

Anthony Stephen Wells, 47, an employee of Busck Prestressed Concrete in Middleton, was hit by the vehicle, which was being driven by a colleague at the company's yard yesterday. He died at the scene and the incident is now under investigation.

Mike Black, manager of Annex Metals, which operates from the site next to Busck, arrived at work shortly after the accident.

"It was shocking coming into work and seeing a man covered up by a white sheet."

It appeared as though the forklift had reversed over the man, Black said.

Prompted by the accident, Black checked his staff understood and were complying with health and safety regulations.

"It was a reminder of how things can go wrong very easily when you are operating big machinery," he said.

The Government's decision to speak out on what it sees as potentially lax standards in a city where construction work will be widespread for years to come is not related to the fatality, but the tragedy reinforces the potential perils faced by some employees.

MBIE's Canterbury health and safety programme director Kathryn Heiler said based on the estimated number of workers involved in the rebuild through to 2018, one or two construction-related deaths could be expected every year.

Further deaths or ill health caused by exposure to workplace contaminants and hazards were also likely.

There could also be 600,000 working days lost because of "workplace injury and illness" as well as up to $80 million in ACC entitlements, she said.

"This is unacceptable. Rebuilding Canterbury safely is a high priority for the ministry.

"To achieve this, it is working closely with other industry, government departments, employers and workers representatives.

"Vigilance is essential to ensure the rebuild's health and safety performance improves," Heiler said

While no-one has died in Christchurch's CBD, a number of serious injuries have been reported.

Father of eight Chris Ngatai suffered a broken neck and head injuries when he fell while working between the 23rd and 24th floors of the Grand Chancellor building in January last year.

And in July last year, a drainage worker was killed after being crushed between two trucks in Woolston.

Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority general manager of operations Baden Ewart said the organisation was not responsible for the entire rebuild, but was committed to maintaining its "very good record".

Eight serious harm incidents had been reported to Cera since February 2011, he said.

"[We have] ensured that even during the most dangerous periods of significant aftershocks there have been no fatalities on worksites within the CBD cordon or residential red zone."

EQC general manager of customer services Bruce Emson said MBIE had estimated that "if we don't change the way we behave in the rebuild", 30 people could lose their lives.

"[Workers] are under floor spaces, they're on roofs, they're up ladders and I seriously do not want to attend a funeral," he said.

"Right now I've got any number of tradesmen on roofs ... without fall protection, without scaffolding or minimum edge protection. Why do they do that? Because they want to get the job done."

Greg Slaughter from the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team said companies needed to take responsibility for raising standards.

"I think what MBIE is saying is a very good challenge for the industry ... we're focusing on [health and safety] to prevent those predictions from coming true."

Master Builders chief executive Warwick Quinn said the "sheer volume" of work in Christchurch meant there was "greater potential for dangerous and unsafe practice".

"Workers go from site to site and they need to have a base level of health and safety knowledge ... workers from overseas might not be up to speed with the New Zealand way and how we operate," he said.

A Fletcher EQR spokesman said contractors had to have their own safety policy and site plans: "Every incident that causes harm is fully investigated and a report is prepared so we can learn from it."

The Press