As the NSW state election looms, a powerful opportunity exists to deliver what the community expects: an assurance of high-quality building and construction work through an engineers registration system.
A fire consumes cladding on the high-rise Lacrosse Tower in Melbourne’s Docklands. Four years later apartment owners are still embroiled in a $24 million cladding removal and repair tribunal battle.
A man steals the identity of an engineer and goes on to enjoy a prolific career, including working on the CTV building in Christchurch, which collapsed during the 2011 earthquake. In 2014 he pleads guilty to 146 charges related to unqualified engineering works in Australia and New Zealand.
Residents of Opal Tower in Sydney’s Olympic Park are evacuated on Christmas Eve after frightening cracking sounds are heard. Several days later, some are allowed to move back in. But signs are not positive as investigators begin to discuss the necessity of significant rectification works.
There are an increasing number of issues related to the engineering industry that are eroding community trust and that can only be solved via a strong and consistent engineers registration system. Such was the finding of an early 2018 a report by Professor Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir, titled Building Confidence: Improving the effectiveness of compliance and enforcement systems for the building and construction industry across Australia.
Amongst 24 recommendations in the report was a nationally consistent approach to the registration of building practitioners, including builders, site managers, building surveyors, building inspectors, architects, engineers, designers/draftspeople, plumbers and fire safety practitioners.
“It is our considered view that the nature and extent of the problems put to us are significant and concerning,” the report said.
“They are likely to undermine public trust in the health and safety of buildings if they are not addressed in a comprehensive manner.”
In recent times, both NSW Labor and the NSW Coalition have voiced support for an engineers registration scheme, but neither has released detail around what they believe such a scheme should entail.
With a state election looming on 23 March, the time for that detail is now.
Danger vs discipline
“In Australia, engineering has been somewhere between accounting, which is self-regulated under two very strong industry associations, and a registered profession,” Weir, co-author of the report and director of Weir Legal & Consulting, said.
“In some states there is registration and in others there isn’t. Plus, there’s a very strong industry association in Engineers Australia.”
But now, particularly considering the recent events mentioned above, there is an expectation for a compulsory system that will ensure competence and accountability, Weir said.
“Events such as Opal Tower might not have been prevented by a robust registration scheme, as a well-known and reputable engineering firm was involved,” she said.
“But newer disciplines such as fire engineering, which can be done by somebody with limited qualifications including without an engineering degree, are of great concern. Disciplinary oversight really needs to be done by government, so there is arm’s length assessment of complaints about conduct and so forth.”
Most agree that the fact anybody can call themselves an ‘engineer’ is of enormous concern. But just as worrying is a lack of compulsory membership of an association or regulatory body, and no meaningful disciplinary processes, Weir said.
Engineers Australia membership is voluntary. And if a member is found to have committed a serious breach of their professional responsibilities and has their membership revoked, they can carry on working as an engineer.
The community expects better, Weir concluded.
Queensland: decades ahead of the game
What exactly does engineers registration look like? For a working example we look to Queensland, which has had a registration process in place for decades.
Dawson Wilkie, Chair of the Board of Professional Engineers Queensland (BPEQ), which regulates the profession in Queensland, said engineer accreditation allows the engineering profession to work to a higher standard, and, in doing so, offers a level of assurance to the community that all engineering works in the state are undertaken to a high standard.
A BPEQ registration, known as an RPEQ (Registered Professional Engineer of Queensland), allows engineers to refer to themselves as a ‘professional engineer’.
“There are a number of steps you have to go through to become an RPEQ,” Wilkie said.
“You must have an academic standard that meets The Washington Accord [a worldwide standard of engineering education] as well as four to five years of mentored experience in the profession. If you are assessed as being qualified and competent then you are able to make an application to become a registered professional engineer.”
But it doesn’t end there. If an engineer’s application is successful (applications are reviewed by a panel of RPEQs), registration can only be renewed if the RPEQ has completed 150 hours of continuing professional development over a three-year period.
“We’re trying to ensure that the level of engineering service in Queensland is of a high standard, and therefore the likelihood of incidents that we’ve seen elsewhere is reduced,” Wilkie said.
“The status of RPEQ is highly valued by engineers as it shows they are qualified and competent, and in doing so it allows them to earn an income. If somebody knowingly does something wrong, they could lose that ability to earn an income.”
The engineering industry, Wilkie said, is in a constant battle against a “race to the bottom” in the form of an increase in design and construction contracts that require “design down to the lowest common denominator”.
An engineers registration system, he said, creates a subtle change that encourages better design and more innovative construction techniques, rather than a cheapening of the process, potentially leading to structural issues, fire dangers, inspection conflicts of interest and other failures.
Engineers Australia’s view
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a package of recommendations so widely endorsed by all areas of the relevant industry,” said Jonathan Russell, National Manager of Public Affairs at Engineers Australia, in reference the Shergold & Weir report.
“Everyone is in broad agreement. But the major, overarching issue that is still outstanding is a firm commitment in the form of a published, public plan for implementation.”
It’s vital that stakeholders, including industry and the general community, see the detail of the vision from the major parties before the election.
“It’s also important that Engineers Australia and other relevant people are involved in the formulation of the regulation,” Russell said.
The primary benefit for the industry and the community is around health and safety. That is of value to everybody. For the same reason that doctors require a strong and consistent registration system, so engineers should also be subject to the same.
“Put simply, we want to ensure consistency across state registration systems and constant improvement in the industry,” he said.
“We want to guarantee that the people signing off on a design are responsible for ensuring that it has been drawn up according to standards, and that a building has actually been constructed in accordance with the design.”
The Shergold & Weir report backs up this point of view, saying: “We believe that compliance and enforcement systems that incorporate our recommendations represent a national best practice model that will strengthen the effective implementation of the NCC.”