|Issue No. 142
|28 June 2002
Interview: Safe as Houses
Safety: Ten Steps to Safety
History: Staying Alive
Unions: Choose Life
International: Seoul Destroyers
Corporate: Crash Landing
Activists: The Refusenik
Review: Dumb Nation
Poetry: Helping Out The Rich
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Good News from the Pilbara
Go Mark, Go
We've all heard of South American death squads, right? Well, Argentinian-born Serge Saliadarre and Chilean off-sider, Vridmar Vega, are the exact opposite.
The pair learned their trades around Sydney building sites before becoming CFMEU organisers. The mission they've chosen to accept is protecting the lives of people in the building industry.
It's 11.50am when concreter Saliadarre and carpenter Vega don hard hats and announce their presence at a residential development on the corner of Marlborough Rd, Homebush.
60 Marlborough Rd is one of a number of apartment buildings going up in an area where small builders cut corners to turn a quid. It's up the road from the union-nominated site Commissioner Cole declined to visit last week and even closer to a development shut down by state safety regulator, Workcover.
The pair walk on site to discover two Workcover inspectors already checking paperwork in the shed that passes for an office. They exchange pleasantries.
Saliadarre introduces himself to the builder. He's a muscular young man with a pony tail escaping the confines of his hard hat. We'll call him Jon. He studies the proferred right of entry permits and nods.
Jon's confident. He's paid $3,500 to a private safety consultant to cover his backside.
Saliadarre asks for the name and shakes his head. He takes the builder aside and warns his consultant is the same individual responsible for the sites mentioned above.
In the interests of efficiency, Saliadarre and Vega decide to join the Workcover men on their inspection.
The atmosphere is good. Counsels assisting Commissioner Cole might baulk at some of the language but, hey, it is a building site and it's all good natured.
The lunchroom and portable toilet get the thumbs up.
"Hey, they've even got toilet paper, bloody amazing," Saliadarre reports.
The older Workcover inspecter lays down his credentials as a practical sort of bloke, explaining that amenities give him a good idea of what's coming.
"Everyone's got to eat and everyone's got to take a piss," he explains. "If they can't get that right, you're usually in trouble."
There's a few problems in the basement but nothing too dramatic - loose material lying around, that type of thing.
Saliadarre is less than impressed by the combined effect of three water-filled pits and short, open stair cases leading down from the unfenced permimeter. He takes the builder aside.
"Jon, the last thing you want to do is come in here in the morning and find a kid has fallen in there. When we go home, these places make great playgrounds."
Workcover is more direct.
"Get those pits covered, mate, and make sure there's some physical barrier on the stairs."
Jon doesn't need to be told twice. He's on the mobile. His labourer is down in a matter of minutes, putting boards across the pits.
Outside, there are queries over a hoist with unprotected moving parts and no fencing, not to mention four sharp steel posts erected at the bottom of another stairwell.
Workcover: "Listen mate, you've got to put caps on them. Someone trips here and these things go through a shoulder or take out an eye."
On the way upstairs, Jon tells us he's putting up 27 units.
On the first floor there's only tape protecting the perimeters. Vega says it's not good enough, the boss reckons it is.
"Honest Jon, these wouldn't hold Jack Shit," one of the Workcover men intervenes. "We don't want to get emotional and I'm not being picky but that is not protection."
On the way to the next floor we encouter a spaghetti junction of electrical cables. There's a bit of toing and froing, some are removed and others untangled.
It's a long way down from the second floor and nobody is impressed by a link chain, the sort of thing you might use to tie up a domestic dog, being used as perimeter protection. Worse, it's just hooked over a nail.
Saliadarre and Vega tell Jon it's not on.
Workcover informs him it's writing a fine. Not only would "Jack Shit" go straight through but, under pressure, the chain swings out past the edge of the floor.
"Fair go," one of the Workcover men says, "this wouldn't work if it was fastened with bolts".
There's discussion over a number of things but the atmosphere is still cordial. Jon's getting a bit ropey, cursing out the private consultant, wondering why he ever bothered.
Vega comes over all conciliatory, says it's better than 90 percent of the jobs he visits.
"It's clean," he explains, "for residential developments this place isn't bad at all."
Saliadarre takes a tumble on the next set of stairs, crashing down on his right shoulder.
"Health and safety," he grumbles, trying to flex the unwilling limb.
Then we're up top. The view is great, across to the Olympic Stadium and straight ahead to a big area of green that developers and builders are hungrily eyeing off.
Closer, though, it's not so pretty. As soon as you get up the concrete stairs, there's an unprotected drop to a courtyard. Over to the left, there are big gaps in the perimeter scaffolding. Where the scaffolding does stand around the edges, there are no kickboards, leaving gaps of anying up to half a metre at the bottom.
Open stairways and rooms below the roof are completely unprotected, no handrails, not even taping.
Vega and Saliadarre are backtracking on their earlier assessments. They tell Jon so. He argues it's highly unlikely anyone would slip through the gaps where the kickboards should be.
"This is bullshit, mate, honestly, you can't have blokes working up here," Saliadarre says. He launches into a story about a young bloke he worked with in 1998, who went through a hole smaller than that left between the edge and the scaffolding. He fell three stories and was " bloody lucky" only to break both elbows.
But, Jon argues, nobody works up here, anyway. Points for trying but floor markings and strings leading from stacks of bricks tell a different story.
"Look, it's not just your workers," a Workcover man intervenes. "You've got to have kickboards. What if someone kicks a brick or drops a trowel? How would you like to be walking down the street, minding your business?"
Jon throws up his hands. It's a fair cop. He recounts his own tale of how, only a fortnight ago, a mate fell two stories on a site in Bankstown and wound up in hospital.
Back in the smoko room, the Workcover inspectors start writing out notices.
Jon takes Saliadarre aside and tells him his father is starting a job nearby. He asks the union official if he would call over, run his eye across the site and give his Dad a few pointers before he gets started.
Saliadarre is made up.
"Better if we can sort things out before anyone is put at risk," he says.
"As an organiser," Vega explains, "most of our time is taken up with safety. We have been here three hours and we will be here for another two or three days before we even try to recruit a member or discuss an industrial issue.
"That's the way it is in this industry, unfortunately, but it would be immoral not to make safety our priority."
The union men stick their heads back around the corner to see what Workcover is up to. They're imposing one fine, writing improvement notices and, most importantly, a notice prohibiting work on the roof until safety improvements are made.
Saliadarre emphasies the point to the builder. "Please Jon, nobody up there," he pleads. "Nobody up there until it's safe and fenced off. We don't need any more accidents and nor do you."
Jon gives his word.
The point, for a Royal Commission charged with investigating "illegal and improper" activities in the building industry is this. At sparrow's fart, the following day, there are more than 20 brikkies up on the roof in direct contravention of the Workcover prohibition notice.
Investigate that, Mr Commissioner!
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