Even before I got inside the property, I stuck my camera over the pointy-topped boundary security fence to take a photo.

It is an amazing sight that an engineer doesn’t get to see very often in his career: thousands of square metres of crumpled structure on the ground.

The security fence points were suitably sharp and I managed to cut my finger badly enough that it was hard to stop the bleeding. Undeterred, I walked into the makeshift office past several signs that stated “˜SAFETY IS OUR PRIORITY’.

To reinforce the point, the same message was written on everyone’s safety vests and also at the top of the sign-in book.

Not that it was the building owner’s fault, but all these safety signs were a little ironic given that their building now resembled a pancake on the ground. The whole situation got worse still when, after I had signed in, I realised that I had smeared large amounts of blood on the sign-in book all over the safety message!

There was nothing I could do at that point, so I just had to carry on and hope that nobody could work out who the red-handed culprit was.

Engineers obsess about building safety; it’s our job to make sure we don’t drop the ceiling on our customers. But until recently, we have essentially only worried about the finished product.

Other than for a few specialties such as formwork design and trench shoring, we don’t worry too much about construction stability, as that is the job of the builder.

Clearly, it still remains primarily the responsibility of the builder to make sure that the building is safe during construction, because they have control over both the long-term and day-to-day construction processes. However, over the last few years, safety responsibility has evolved to include everyone involved in the conception and construction of all the different aspects of the building.

Safe Work Australia’s “˜Safe Design of Structures Code of Practice’ states that:

“Safe design means the integration of control measures early in the design process to eliminate or, if this is not reasonably practicable, minimise risks to health and safety throughout the life of the structure being designed.”

So who does this affect? According to the Code it is:

“Persons who design structures that will be used, or could reasonably be expected to be used, as a workplace. This includes architects, building designers and engineers.”

I think that it’s reasonable to assume that truss and frame designers all fall under the code’s scope.

I must confess that I am still grappling with just what that means for me and my business.

At ten times longer than this article and full of very broad requirements, the Code of Practice is something that would seem to require a large company’s legal department to interpret and formulate the code into a customised set of work practices.

That makes it hard to imagine a small business or construction site having the wherewithal to do that same task. If taken to its extreme, I suspect you could spend more on consultations with stakeholders and consultants than you could on the entire construction!

I think it’s reasonable to assume that truss and frame designers fall under the code’s scope.

In a lot of ways, the prefabrication industry is well placed to facilitate safe construction. For a start, erecting a prefabricated component is intrinsically safer than constructing from stick timber on site.

I imagine that the move to “˜cassette construction’ for upper floor structures in Western Australia has also been driven, to a degree, by safety considerations. Of course, the various erection guides and AS4440 have already provided a considerable amount of useful information and protocols to assist with safe construction processes.

I am not proposing to tell you what you should do when it comes to responsibilities for construction safety. But, if you are not already on top of the current safety requirements, now is a good time to investigate. The Code of Practice seems to be a good place to start – first step is to Google “˜Safe Work Australia design of structures’.

In our society we demand that any aspect of our safety controlled by others should be of the highest standard.

However, it is one of those strange contradictions that we generally don’t set the same standards for our personal lives.

Forget nine lives, I have used up about fifteen so far in my own outdoor pursuits. One way another, I am guessing most of you have also done some pretty dangerous things – some of which have probably bitten you on the bum.

Currently, I am sporting deep cuts on my fingers, as well as massive welts on my inner thigh and backside from a grinding blade that shattered when I was operating it in a less than safe manner while building my shed.

In this case, there is no need for a penalty, not even a slap on the wrist. I still have shrapnel embedded in my backside as a reminder to be more careful next time!


Paul Davis is an independent structural engineer managing his own consulting firm Project X Solutions Pty Ltd. The views in this column are Paul’s and do not reflect the opinions of TimberTrader News.

Phone: 02 4576 1555   Email: pauldavis@timbernews.com