2 Nov 2017

Staff safety in quake on building owners, employers - law firm

12:39 pm on 2 November 2017

If people are killed or injured when non-structural parts of a building fall in an earthquake, building owners and employers will be liable, a lawyer says.

Pipes, fittings and ducting that is not properly restrained could prove deadly in an earthquake.

Pipes, fittings and ducting that are not properly restrained could prove deadly in an earthquake. Photo: 123rf

A survey of randomly selected high-rises in Auckland and Wellington, released to RNZ last week, showed most failed to meet standards to stop the people inside being hit by falling objects.

It showed that between half and 90 percent of the restraints holding in place non-structural elements - suspended ceilings, partition walls, fire sprinkler systems, air-conditioning, lights and plumbing - were substandard.

Garth Gallaway from Chapman Tripp in Christchurch said the obligation was on the building owner or occupier to take steps to stop people from being harmed in a quake.

Garth Gallaway

Garth Gallaway Photo: Supplied to RNZ

"It's as simple as that," he said.

"You can't . . . turn a blind eye to that and say we didn't know."

Since May, RNZ investigations have exposed areas where there are problems, or uncertainty, about potential building hazards including in Civil Defence emergency centres, at hospitals in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and other large companies and employers.

Engineering firm Opus, in a study released last week, said "there is a general lack of understanding in the industry as a whole as to what code compliant solutions look like and what they cost to design and install".

For structural parts of buildings, owners have several years to do strengthening and were not liable in the meantime, Mr Gallaway said.

But owners and employers would be liable for non-structural items now if there was a big quake, Mr Gallaway said.

There has not been a test of the health and safety laws strengthened last year that put the onus on employers to keep staff safe.

But Mr Gallaway said if anyone had been injured in the November 2016 earthquake there could have been legal action.

"WorkSafe would have commenced an investigation. If non-structural componentry in those building was not restrained adequately, then in my view those building owners and employers could well have been susceptible to prosecution.

"My suggestion to an employee would be to engage with an employer and to be asking them if they have, in fact, had those tests done."

Industry leaders have told RNZ that fewer than a dozen engineering firms nationwide were up to speed in this area, so getting restraints inspected may be a problem.

WorkSafe's guidelines indicate it is not checking whether action was being taken.

Engineering New Zealand chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene said it was a "systems-wide" problem, and to fix it would require better building design, better monitoring of building sites, clearer standards and quicker consents.

Ceiling installers have already taken action, bringing in a code of practice for suspended ceilings last year, with others for partitions and walls expected soon.

Association of Wall and Ceiling Industries head Richard Arkinstall said designers were now getting to grips with this, but developers building to price not safety still put pressure on installers.

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