1 Dec 2019

Whistleblower alert system could uncover dodgy engineering

5:53 pm on 1 December 2019

Structural engineers are looking into introducing a whistleblowing scheme used overseas that encourages the alarm to be raised about dodgy work.

construction worker on construction site

Photo: 123rf.com

The Confidential Reporting on Structural Safety (CROSS) scheme has been used for 15 years in the UK, and just launched in the US.

It has also begun in Australia, where it recently carried reports on the poor quality of structural design of high-rise buildings.

Engineering New Zealand is investigating similar poor quality designs here.

The scheme had "only recently been brought to Australia from the UK, it's still getting off the ground", said Structural Engineering Society president Hamish McKenzie.

"We're talking to the Institute of Structural Engineers in the UK and Engineers Australia about whether that could be brought across the side of the Tasman."

An engineer recently blew the whistle on a building with suspect earthquake structural design in central Christchurch, with RNZ revealing the results of official investigations. The fate of that building at 230 High Street has still not been decided.

Whistleblowing laws in New Zealand are considered weak and unclear, and the government has been considering strengthening them, but has still not done so.

RNZ has spoken to many engineers who fear losing business or being sued if they speak up about failures or problems on jobs they are associated with.

The Cross scheme invites them to report structural failures, near misses, concerns, and incidents. Issues reported can then be anonymously examined, with "analysis commentary by subject matter experts", said Alastair Soane, the director of Cross UK, in a newsletter in October.

Mr Soane has previously told RNZ that when he came to New Zealand several years ago he was unable to interest government agencies in running such a scheme in New Zealand.

But awareness of its value is now spreading. The US Cross scheme has buy-in from the Forensic Engineering Group and the American Association of Civil Engineers, which has 150,000 members in 177 countries, Mr Soane said.

In the UK it is supported by central and local government. But it was unclear from Mr McKenzie who might run a Cross scheme in New Zealand.

Last month Cross UK reporting included problems with the design of steel beams, "incorrect use of wind-loading pressure" calculations, and putting too much stress on building columns.

In Australia a report on high-rise design said "lateral loads, and in particular seismic loads, are sometimes not well considered and in some cases are ignored ... Checking and coordination of drawings is often lacking".

In an echo of current moves in New Zealand to create new tiers of specialist engineers, an Australian Cross report said: "There is much focus currently on the need for everybody to be registered, but that's not the answer in this correspondent's opinion.

"What is needed are quality people and quality time to do the job properly."

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