'Someone could die': Fears over safety and bullying at property maintenance company
It is just a matter of time until a window-cleaner at nationwide property maintenance company Goleman Group dies, former employees claim, alleging dangerous working conditions, significant safety concerns, and bullying and intimidation.
Several former abseilers employed by Goleman Group alleged the chief executive punched an employee in the face several times before pushing him down a stairwell after the group lost a contract over unsafe work practices.
The chief executive, Joel Matsis, denied the former employees’ version of events but admitted there had been a “scuffle.” The company “strongly refute[s]” all the allegations made by the 14 former staff members, he said.
Their allegations come less than a month after Goleman employee Ben Lewis fell at least five storeys on to a roof while cleaning windows in central Wellington. Lewis was taken to hospital in serious condition and broke multiple bones.
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WorkSafe is investigating. A spokeswoman said it was aware of other matters raised by former employees, but could not address them specifically “due to the current investigation” into Lewis’s fall.
Goleman Group operates in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Nelson, and Tauranga and specialises in height access and commercial property maintenance, including cleaning and maintaining high-rise buildings.
The allegations largely centre around the company’s abseil and rope access unit in Wellington.
Eleven former Wellington employees described concerns about working conditions, including using equipment they felt was unsafe, working in high winds, and being bullied and intimidated.
They alleged the bullying was largely carried out by the company’s national operations manager, Michael Howells, who would push employees to work harder and faster, despite their safety concerns.
Some reported being reduced to tears, losing sleep, and developing depression as a result.
Howells said no formal complaints had been made about him and said the company culture was in good shape, according to a recent staff survey.
”Safety has, and always will come first in our business.”
Direct conversations needed to be had in an industry with risk, which some employees found challenging, he said.
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One former employee recorded a discussion with Howells. In the audio clip, Howells became frustrated after the employee talks over him when trying to explain feeling unsafe, and he repeatedly swore at the employee.
Howells said he was recorded without his consent and didn’t recall the exact discussion. However, he recalled some employees disrupting a safety meeting and him losing his cool.
“I regret doing so,” he said.
Matsis said he couldn't comment on the recording, but said both management and staff do swear from time to time.
“Any alleged bullying from staff or managers would be immediately addressed with HR following due process,” he said.
Ismael Giacomelli said the treatment was so bad during his 18 months at Goleman, in 2018 and 2019, that he became depressed. He decided to return home to Brazil.
“At that time I had 10 years experience at abseiling, and it was the first time I thought, ‘wow, maybe I'm not that good’. After Goleman I left New Zealand, I felt I was burning out, exhausted,” he said.
Another person, who declined to be named, said he was verbally threatened by Howells on several occasions.
“We have a constant thought one day something is going to go really wrong and someone is going to get really hurt,” he said. “Your mind is not on the ropes, on the work, you're constantly frustrated, feeling abused. I cried so many times because I didn't know how to deal with these emotions ... I was exhausted.”
Evander De Groot, who worked for the company between 2016 and 2018, described an incident where he and a colleague were working in a building maintenance unit – a cage – hanging off the side of Fujitsu Tower on The Terrace. The weather forecast predicted 90kmh winds on the day, he said.
When they went over the edge, the wind pushed the cageabout two metres out from the building, then it crashed back into the building.
The pair went back up onto the roof and called Howells to say it was too unsafe to complete the work, which resulted in Howells calling them “pussies”, De Groot said.
The incident wasn’t reported to WorkSafe, he said.
Matsis denied incidents weren’t reported and said if the wind threatened an employee’s safety, they had the right to shut the site down. Every incident was reported and documented, he said.
Matsis confirmed he got into a physical altercation with a “highly agitated” employee during a meeting in October 2017, after a client, City Care, reported unsafe practices. The employee grabbed him and pushed him against a wall, he said.
“A scuffle ensued and was broken up by other managers.” Matsis regretted not laying charges, he said.
However, the former employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, strongly disputed Matsis’ claims, stating his boss punched him in the face several times and then pushed him down the stairs.
City Care has been approached for comment, but did not respond.
Eleven former employees alleged the company provided them with equipment that made them feel unsafe, some of which they claimed were uncertified.
Neil Jennings, who started working for Goleman in 2019, said he saw ropes being used more than a year after their designated lifespan. Others claimed the company supplied ropes that elongated and became stretchy when wet.
The former employees also repeatedly raised concerns that they were supervised by insufficiently qualified workers, they said.
Canadian Andrew Linklater, who worked for Goleman on a holiday visa last year, recalled “alarm bells ringing” when he started abseiling for the company and his colleague was not trained to be a supervisor.
Health and safety meetings were “laughably unprofessional,” Linklater said, describing jokes being made, “nothing being taken seriously” and confrontational behaviour.
Matsis denied these claims too, saying all equipment was regularly inspected, certified, and audited annually.
“We hold numerous external safety ratings. Every Goleman employee holds, or is working towards, their NZ certificate in rope access. Every worksite adheres to, and in most cases exceeds, the NZ best practice guidelines for rope access,” he said.
The recent accident where Lewis fell, was, by the worker’s own admission, human error, Matsis said.
“He made a mistake. He has apologised to me for this and feels terrible for potentially damaging the business reputation,” he said.
Matsis provided contact details for the employee Lewis, who wrote in an email that “his mind was elsewhere” on the day of the fall and that he didn’t connect his ropes correctly to the anchor points.
“The culture and health and safety at Goleman is excellent from my point of view. The equipment is the best there is, and the training is second to none. I have always felt safe and respected and have never been asked to do a job I did not feel safe doing,” Lewis wrote.
Wellington City Council spokesman Richard MacLean confirmed the council no longer had a relationship with Goleman Group.
Stuff understands the council, which worked with the company both directly and through contracting with City Care, parted ways with them in 2018 after serious concerns about Goleman’s safety record.
Giacomelli and others said they feared someone would die or be seriously injured. In March last year, he reported his concerns to WorkSafe and said “please try to be quick.”
In response, a WorkSafe inspector said it had “existing inquiries” under way about the company.
A WorkSafe spokeswoman said the agency took all health and safety concerns seriously and had conducted a number of assessments in relation to the company.
WorkSafe asked current and past employees with concerns to make a formal statement.
The spokeswoman could not state how many complaints have been made about Goleman or how many investigations had been carried out.