23 Mar 2016

Substandard steel crisis compared to leaky homes

12:11 pm on 23 March 2016

Engineers are backing calls for the government to tighten New Zealand's steel testing regime.

A file photo shows a construction worker selecting steel mesh for concrete reinforcement factory

A file photo shows a construction worker selecting steel mesh for concrete reinforcement factory Photo: Cultura Creative

The Australasian Certification Authority for Reinforcing and Structural Steels wants the country to adopt Europe's stringent testing, where company heads must sign off steel products to show they're up to standard and face jail if they're not.

The authority has said New Zealand is a wild west when it comes to steel testing, a view shared by Auckland-based engineer John Scarry.

"It's getting to the stage from a structural engineering point of view back to the worst days of the 19th Century where an engineer couldn't trust the building products."

The issue of substandard steel imports was comparable to the leaky homes crisis and billions of dollars were at stake, Mr Scarry said.

There were too many unknowns around steel certificates to be confident they were always accurate.

"There is more and more push to have, for example, fabricated steel come in from China and the material may comply, it may not. But for a short saving it creates an awful amount of additional work for councils and engineers trying to keep on top of it."

The Society for Safety Engineering is part of the Institution of Professional Engineers (IPENZ).

Its chairperson Joseph Bain said the new Health and Safety at Work Act comes into force on 4 April and companies will have to take more responsibility for ensuring the steel products they import are actually safe.

The paperwork accompanying the steel could not always be trusted, Dr Bain said.

"If a company is importing steel then they need to ensure that the steel is the grade they say it is, which might mean they can rely on the original manufacturer's paperwork, but at the same time it might not. It depends on the manufacturer.

"The importer might need to implement their own testing regime or some equivalent form of quality control."

Building Industry Federation chief executive Bruce Kohn pointed out reports of sub-standard steel had been a wake-up call for the industry.

While Mr Kohn did not believe issues with poor steel products were systemic, he warned the sector needed to understand the impact of the world over-supply of steel.

"All suppliers and buyers need to be aware there can be variations in steel quality from Asia. In China there's currently a saying that 'steel is cheaper than cabbages'."

The Heavy Engineering Research Association deals with steel construction in buildings.

Its director, Wolfgang Scholz, said while it tried to lead the way by having a traceable supply of steel certified products, there were clearly issues with some non-complying products on the market.

Dr Scholz said the Ministry of Building Innovation and Employment (MBIE) needed to take a firmer line to ensure standards were met.

"We request MBIE to really take the lead there and make sure we have got the policing element in place. This is not the case, it very much relies on voluntary contributions... to make sure we are there."

Engineers had to sign-off steel products and then take responsibility for how they performed, he said.

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