Lessons from Melbourne Grocon wall collapse tragedy

The Grocon wall collapse that tragically killed three passers-by in Melbourne has hit the headlines again.

One of the key questions that it raises is whether companies like Grocon and its contracted signage company Aussies Signs could have foreseen and done anything to avoid this event.

Without knowing the inside story, it is hard to judge, but the courts certainly think so. Three things occur to me:

1. Big construction companies like Grocon have literally thousands of potential hazards it needs to monitor and manage each day – and that’s just on one project.

2. Smaller contractors, Aussie Signs in this instance, need to take responsibility for the potential risks associated with their work.

3. Regulators like Worksafe just don’t have the resources and tools needed to ensure companies like Grocon and Aussie Signs are complying with their health and safety responsibilities.

With these three factors in mind how can a similar tragic event be prevented in the future; or can it?

My thoughts on each:

You would expect such a large company like Grocon to have sophisticated risk management systems in place.  What is less obvious in this case is whether this type of risk formed part the company’s ongoing monitoring process.  If not, there is little doubt it will now.

Aussie Signs
It is very rare that small firms like Aussie Signs are involved in such a catastrophic events.  With that said, sub-contractors in and around the construction industry need to regularly monitor employee compliance with standard work practices as part of their OH&S responsibilities; i.e. obtaining building permits.

Regulators often have a thankless task trying to police regulations.  Any new legal requirements that stem from this tragedy will just add to this burden.  What is needed is a more efficient method of monitoring company compliance with legal OH&S safety requirements.

From what I have been able to glean from the media is wasn’t that Grocon or Aussie Signs didn’t have the means to prevent this event – it’s just that it wasn’t implemented.

Accordingly, no amount of added regulation is likely to prevent similar events occurring in the future until a more efficient and effective method of monitoring employee compliance with specified processes and procedures requirements is introduced.

One of the most rigorous methods of monitoring and controlling noncompliance risks is acceptance sampling. This world-best-practice approach to auditing and inspection can be used to identify and correct ineffective risk controls before they adversely impact on organisation objectives; including OH&S.  (I’ve written more about this in a recent article:   http://compliance-master.com/blog/risk-monitoring-and-control/optimised-risk-auditing-using-acceptance-sampling/ )

This methodology, coupled with some intelligent software, would enable the regulator to audit a company’s risk approach and scientifically know what the results actually mean. This should then translate into an ability to automatically change the intensity, i.e. cost, of the regulation program based on how well a company’s risk approach was performing.

In reality, it appears extremely hard for Grocon to have been fully aware, and to manage, the potential risk of the wall collapse. But, the reputational, financial and human impact of the event proves systematic risk management has to be an integral, fully-resourced activity.

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