‘Dodgy’ safety certificates rife on building sites, Senate cladding inquiry told
The Age
Madeleine Heffernan
14 July 2017

A fire such as Grenfell: "would not be possible in Melbourne, or Australia, in fact, because we have the strongest building codes of any first-world country."
—Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne   2017

The Melbourne Lacrosse condos on fire in 2014

Fraudsters are making fake safety certificates for building products, a Senate inquiry has been told. 

The inquiry into non-conforming building products has gathered pace after the fatal fire at the Grenfell Tower fire in London last month.

That fire, fuelled by flammable cladding, left 80 people dead.

Travis Wacey, national policy research officer at the CFMEU, told the inquiry in Melbourne on Friday that dodgy certificates pretending building products comply with local safety rules were rife on Australian building sites.

"Sometimes these guys [construction workers] can't have confidence in some of the declarations that are being made about products ... due to the prevalence of fraudulent behaviour," Mr Wacey said.

Each state and territory in Australia has its own laws and regulators, with problems often passed between the federal competition regulator, customs, and state-based fair trading offices.

The Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner, for example, seeks to improve the safety of companies bidding for large government building and construction projects.

Labor Senator Kim Carr called the office a "paper tiger" after the Federal Safety Commissioner, Alan Edwards, told the inquiry it had done no building audits in the past seven months and was limited by its small budgets and staff numbers as well as a lack of expertise.

The inquiry also heard that thousands of buildings are potentially a high fire risk due to non-compliant, highly flammable combustible cladding.

"It needs to be looked at, whether they're dangerous or not," Mr Wacey said.

The swiftness of the response in Britain to the Grenfell fire – where building audits were conducted within weeks – has been contrasted with the slow response to the November 2014 fire in the Lacrosse building in Melbourne's Docklands.

The non-fatal Lacrosse building fire was caused by a cigarette butt but fuelled by flammable cladding.

The Lacrosse building is still occupied, and the owners have until July 2018 to remove its cladding – some 44 months after the fire.

Adam Dalrymple, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade's acting executive director for emergency management, meanwhile, expressed his disappointment at the "apparent lack of movement by regulators" since the Lacrosse fire.

"Lacrosse for us was a bit of a wake-up call," he said.

"Since then I believe the regulators have been rubbing the sleep out of their eyes and with this tragic event everyone has woken up, albeit some 2 years later, after we had a similar event in our own backyard.

"Grenfell and Lacrosse aren't isolated incidents: there's been 19 fires involving cladding worldwide since 2005. The death tolls run from none to 80.

"There's been some remedial action in various jurisdictions worldwide and they range from removal of cladding to changes to evacuation policy to even changes to fire services doctrine."

After the Lacrosse fires, an audit was conducted of 170 buildings built in Melbourne's CBD over the past decade. The audit found 51 per cent had work that was deemed non-compliant and about eight are classified as "high risk," Mr Dalrymple said.

Furthermore, just one of the MFB's recommendations in its post-incident analysis had been taken up by the state: extending sprinkler protections to balconies.

The CFMEU's Mr Wacey said the union had urged its members not to install products they believed were non-conforming or would be if they were installed in a certain way.

The inquiry follows warnings that combustible panels similar to those installed on the Grenfell Tower are widely used across Australia, and that people could be living in Melbourne apartment towers unaware the buildings had been built with combustible cladding.

Combustible cladding has been identified on the Travelodge Hotel in Docklands, and the Trilogi building in Prahran recently warned its 807 residents that all 12 storeys of the luxury apartment block were fitted with cladding described as "non-compliant" and posing an "unusual fire risk".

Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne has said a fire such as Grenfell "would not be possible in Melbourne, or Australia, in fact, because we have the strongest building codes of any first-world country."

But the Andrews government recently announced a taskforce to identify dangerous cladding in Victoria, oversee any rectification work and make recommendations about how to improve industry compliance with building standards.

The taskforce is expected to investigate thousands of properties built over the past 12 years and focus on high-rise apartments.

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