VIC News – building inspectors pressured to avoid finding faults

Building inspectors pressured to avoid finding faults

By Clay Lucas 

Building inspectors working for the state construction watchdog say they are being pressured not to complete thorough inspections and to avoid finding faults on projects so they can meet high-performance targets.

A leaked WorkSafe report handed to the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) last week found that the authority was placing its 40 building and plumbing inspectors at risk by demanding they finish at least three inspections a day and, in the case of plumbing inspectors, five a day.

A leaked WorkSafe report finds building inspectors working for the state construction watchdog are pressured not to complete thorough inspections.

WorkSafe investigators talked to three VBA inspectors who said they had been told by managers “to alter the inspection outcome (such as providing a risk rating of ‘low risk’) to reduce administrative obligations or had been discouraged from identifying non-compliance in order to complete work at a faster pace”.

“Management place greater emphasis on meeting performance measures than on the quality of work or occupational health and safety,” WorkSafe’s report said.

VBA inspectors police the construction industry in Victoria, licensing builders and plumbers and carrying out inspections and investigations to enforce compliance with the building code. The authority also oversees the work of building surveyors and ensures that building permits are issued correctly.

The workload imposed on inspectors appears to be an attempt by the authority to meet strict targets set for it by the Andrews government that 10 per cent of all building permits issued each year must be inspected.

In a directive from then-planning minister Richard Wynne in 2020, the authority was ordered to inspect at least 10 percent of new building permits each year, and the instruction was repeated in subsequent “statement of expectations” issued by the minister.

The VBA has been attacked for years by many in construction for its failure to adequately police the industry and for failing to aggressively pursue rogue builders and surveyors who sign off on faulty work.

The leaked report follows the suicide of a VBA building inspector in May, which prompted the union covering VBA staff to accuse it of having a “toxic workplace”.

Inspectors’ workload includes all administrative work, which can be extensive if they find major faults with a construction site, and the time spent getting to and from jobs.

The WorkSafe report found that what was being asked of building and plumbing inspectors was not reasonable or achievable.

WorkSafe staff conducting a “psycho-social safety” review interviewed the authority’s inspectors and found they “feel pressured to not complete a thorough inspection and/or avoid finding risk items in order to meet performance measures”.

Problems with regulation in the industry have led successive state governments to promise ever harsher crackdowns on “dodgy” builders, with the building authority expected to fulfill promises made by planning ministers.

A VBA spokesman said it took the safety of its people “extremely seriously” and “welcomes the opportunity this notice presents to ensure we have the best possible systems in place”.

The Community and Public Sector Union sent a letter to the VBA after the employee suicide in May, demanding that employees be protected from “harassment and bullying”.

On Tuesday, a union spokesman said members felt “strongly vindicated” by the WorkSafe report.

Problems within the VBA led the Australian Institute of Building Surveyors to say last month that it had “lost confidence in the ability of the VBA, as a regulating authority, to carry out its primary functions effectively and fairly”.

The institute declined to comment further on Tuesday but a spokeswoman said it was making a submission to an independent inquiry into allegations of bullying and cultural issues at the VBA.

The inquiry is being run by Greg Smith, former deputy president of the Fair Work Commission, and is among at least three reviews of the authority.

The WorkSafe report also said that the VBA had twice promised to review its performance measures applied to building and plumbing inspectors to ensure they were able to do their jobs properly, but it had not done so.

In a separately leaked email on Monday, the authority’s chief executive, Sue Eddy, said that as a result of the WorkSafe report, it was now required “to develop a workload management system with realistic and achievable workload levels, taking into consideration contributing factors which may affect plumbing and building inspectors’ ability to complete allocated tasks”.

Eddy said she would be required to ensure that “sufficient staffing of the right level of experience and skill mix exists to meet the minister’s expectations to inspect 10 percent of all building permits”.

Opposition planning spokesman Ryan Smith said the WorkSafe investigation “lifts the lid on some pretty damning work practices, which surely have the potential to put lives at risk”.

“The revelation that risk assessments are being downgraded just to save some time on paperwork will shatter any remaining confidence in the VBA and in the government that is supposed to have oversight of them,” he said.

The Age asked Planning Minister Lizzie Blandthorn, who has oversight of the VBA, if the authority had sufficient staff to carry out its functions and whether she was concerned inspectors had said they were being asked to cut corners and avoid finding faults in buildings.

A Victorian government spokeswoman responded by saying: “We expect the VBA and their staff to undertake detailed and thorough inspections to ensure community safety.” She also said the authority was appropriately resourced.

Lifeline 13 11 14.

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