Weld Australia: Welding compliance is an issue of public safety

Weld Australia CEO Geoff Crittenden discusses the role welding plays in public safety. 

The lack of regulation covering steel manufacturing, fabrication, and erection is a national disgrace that has reduced our industry to the lowest common denominator: cost.

In a misguided commercial experiment, Australia eradicated the regulations that mandated compliance to Australian Standards. The aim of this experiment was to cut through the regulatory red-tape imposed on Australian industry, in a bid to give our home-grown manufacturers more of an opportunity to compete within an increasingly global marketplace.

In reality, the abolition of these regulations has handed a substantial portion of our local industry – and therefore local jobs – to our overseas competitors.

More importantly though, this complete lack of regulation has put Australian lives at risk. There is no compulsion for either a client or a fabricator to comply with Australian Standards. The problem is that if structures and components are not fabricated in accordance to Australian Standards, there is simply no way to guarantee that they will not fail.

The entire lifecycle of the welding process – from design right through to inspection – must consider all aspects that could affect weld quality, and therefore public safety. This type of approach is essential because it is impossible to undertake verification of a completed welded joint, particularly if it has been painted over and galvanised. Unfortunately, inspection after completion does not guarantee weld serviceability. As such, quality must be built into the welding process, right from the very beginning.

Just look at some of the recent examples reported across Australian news outlets. On January 8, 2019, a sign over the Tullamarine Freeway in Melbourne fell on a car, narrowly avoiding killing the driver.

Preliminary findings indicate that the road sign may have failed due to a missing stiffener plate in the gantry that held the sign. However, investigations into the cause of this accident were still underway at the time of writing. If the collapse of this sign is proved to be due to welding or fabrication failure, it could spell disaster for freeways across Australia – thousands of road signs may require remediation, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Similarly, the new Opal apartment tower in Sydney had to be evacuated because of structural cracking that occurred on Christmas Eve. The large cracks are believed to have been caused by “factors of safety lower than required by standards”.

The lack of fatalities to date is pure luck; it simply will not last with the current level of regulation.

The international perspective

In Europe, it is mandatory for all companies involved in welding to be certified to the appropriate international standards by an independent, accredited third-party authority. All products and structures must be CE marked (an abbreviation of French phrase Conformité Européene, which literally means European Conformity). Similar regulations apply in Japan, where products and structures are JIS (Japanese Industrial Standards) marked. In Canada, a mandatory system was implemented in 1947 that ensures the safety of all publicly-funded welded structural steel. A system that has now been adopted by many of Canada’s large companies. While the United States does not mandate compliance, it has a legislative framework that delivers the same result.

Our close neighbours, suppliers and competitors, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, do not have welding compliance regulations or systems in place. Instead, welders and fabricators in these countries tailor production to customer specifications. As a result, most imported fabricated steel is of inferior quality and does not meet Australian Standards.

Weld Australia estimates that over 30 per cent of fabricated steel structures and products in use in Australia are imported. Whilst Australian companies normally specify Australian or international standards, the cost of ensuring compliance is so high it rarely happens. There is no requirement for imported steel to be tested and inspected prior to installation. Weld Australia estimates there could be as much as 1.5 billion tonnes of non-compliant welded structural steel in Australia.

Australian welders and fabricators have the opportunity to join the likes of Europe, Japan, Canada and the United States. By substantially raising the quality of the welded components and structures produced in Australia, we bolster the competitiveness of the local manufacturing industry, helping reverse the decline in local manufacturing jobs and provide a safer environment.

The way forward

The federal government must show leadership and amend the necessary regulations to mandate compliance to Australian standards or wear the consequential loss of life.

It is critical that all:

• Fabrication completed in Australia is compliant with AS/NZS 1554 Structural steel welding,

• Welders are qualified to ISO 9606 Qualification testing of welders,

• Welding and fabrication companies are certified to AS/NZS ISO 3834 Quality requirements for fusion welding of metallic materials,

• Workplace Health and Safety legislation holds the importer responsible for ensuring mandatory compliance to relevant Australian or International standards, governing welding production and fabrication.

Clearly, these regulations are necessary, as evidenced by the specifications developed by Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) in New South Wales. RMS has already rolled out a highly successful welding safety control system under which companies must be certified to AS/NZS ISO 3834 to undertake work on gantries and bridges. The other states have yet to implement similar systems.

There is absolutely no question lives are at risk. The fundamental issue is a lack of adequate regulation across Australia. The only way to guarantee public safety is to implement and enforce regulations that mandate compliance to Australian Standards for the manufacture, fabrication, and erection of steel within Australia, and the inspection of imported structural and fabricated steel.