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Perth's Airport Tunnel fiasco continues

Nicholas McCallum

'Workers know there are dangers, but they are afraid to speak up because there is a culture of fear.'

It’s one of the biggest jobs in the city, but the contractors’ concern for worker safety on the Perth Airport tunnel is so small it almost doesn’t exist.

ETU WA organisers have found countless major safety breaches throughout the tunnel project run by Salini Impregilo/NRW over the past two years.

Unsafe access: ETU calls on poor approach to safety on Perth Airport Tunnel project to be immediately addressed.

Flooding tunnels, poor lighting and countless hazards scattered about the project have been well-documented by union members and organisers – with local news covering the concerns in November 2018.

Nearly one year on, nothing has changed. In fact, things are worse.

Organiser Ian Gill visited the site in July to inspect the latest disaster waiting to happen – a poorly-lit access shaft with a near-40-metre drop to the bedrock below.

“This is how workers must enter and leave the rail tunnel at the Airport West shaft, day and night,” he said.

“A good 35-40 metres deep on the narrowest scaffold stairway you will find anywhere on Perth’s 3rd tier construction sites.”

Prior to the ETU's visit there was poor lighting, but that is now being rectified. 

With the access so tight, dark and dangerous, Gill asked the obvious question, “just how does one get an injured worker who has collapsed halfway up that tiny stairway?”

The ETU has called for Alimaks to be installed at these types of locations to ensure for safe and easy access to the work fronts. This will also increase efficiencies by cutting down on time, not to mention reducing workers’ fatigue.

Those who aren't working near the shaft have to walk several hundred metres along the tunnel to the Redcliffe Station area.

Poor access and egress, slurry pumps are not protected.

A young worker recently got a shock onsite, which is currently being investigated by the regulator. Gill said all the project is overworked and under-staffed with a "hectic pace". 

“The project winner came in around half-a-billion under the nearest competitor,” he said.

“This creates mistakes and short cuts. They are doing it fast and cheap in wages and labour and materials and it’s the workers who are paying for it.”

Lighting and emergency lighting fixed to the tunnel walls are often supplied by extension-lead type cabling with plugs daisy-chaining along the length of the circuit.

“Workers know there are dangers, but they are afraid to speak up because there is a culture of fear and has been since the beginning,” he said.

Cables run throughout the site unprotected.

A warning to workers.

Tunnel boring slurry pumps and other equipment that provide power, including transformers, switchboards, switchgear and motors, are installed on makeshift steel frames, some of which do not have access stairs and working platforms upon which to work safely.

This puts electrical switches well over 2 metres above floor level, making them not readily accessible and in breach of SAA Wiring Rules AS/NZS 3000: 2018. 

The ETU is now calling on the regulators to do their jobs, as well as WA ministers Rita Saffioti, transport, and Bill Johnston, industrial relations, to do theirs.

“Shame on the lot of you,” Gill said.

Access gangways have makeshift safety guardrails.

WA Secretary Peter Carter said the ETU, CFMEU and the AMWU are turning up the heat on the tunnel project and will force safety concerns to be addressed before work ramps up in coming months.

“There are only small number of workers in these tunnels at the moment because the boring is ongoing,” Carter said.

“When the main installation begins we’ll have potentially several hundred workers in the tunnels, and access & egress, ventilation and confined space issues will be exacerbated if the current safety culture is not addressed.”

Secretary Carter said the union would be warning electrical workers to stay away from the job because of the problems associated with the project.

"Salini will be hiring workers direct to complete most of the Elec & Mech contract because some contractors do not want to work under their safety regime and therefore put their workforce at risk," he said. 

The ETU is demanding the state government intervene on the unaddressed safety issues.

“Furthermore Salini used the Federal IR laws to impose their site agreement - voted-up by less than a handful of blokes before a shovel was in the ground - which undercuts the ETU EBA by up to 25%.

"$36 p/hr for electrical tradespeople on the biggest infrastructure job in the state is an insult to their skills, training & experience.

"We know that there isn’t much work around at the moment but with the history of serious injuries and near misses on the project our warning for all workers is: watch out on this job.”  

If in doubt, call your union or speak with your organiser or delegate. There is no sense in risking your life or your workmates on the job. To contact the ETU WA Branch, visit etuwa.com.au/contact


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