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Interview with Joe O'Brien, ABC2 News Breakfast
11 February 2010
O'BRIEN: Now we've been reporting this morning that Environment Minister Peter Garrett has ordered safety checks for 49,000 households, costing $90 million after four deaths related to the Government's insulation program.
The situation has prompted the Opposition to call for Mr Garrett's resignation.
Peter Garrett joins us now from Canberra. Minister, good morning.
GARRETT: Good morning, Joe.
O'BRIEN: Now, you were warned a year ago by the National Electrical and Communications Association, this program was potentially dangerous. Why didn't you suspend it until it could be rolled out safely?
GARRETT: Joe, that communication from NECA and other communications identified a series of issues in relation to the program which I addressed. And I think the important thing that's been lost in this debate is the actions that the Government and that I took in terms of responding, not only to what we heard from industry and the consultations that we did, but also as we were rolling out the program.
Many of those issues related to training and an agreement was sought to bring forward a nationally accredited training module for ceiling insulation and installers; we did that, and that started on 1 July.
And in relation to your introduction, I don't think the costs are going to be quite that high as you've noted.
But what I would say is that in relation to safety issues, when issues have been brought forward to me and I've taken advice on them from the department, I have acted straightaway.
When I've had any concern about whether or not the measures that we have are strong enough in terms of safety, I've strengthened them.
But I've done this in the context of having a set of guidelines in place which exceeds the Australian Standards requirements, exceeds the Building Code of Australia requirements, but does still have, like any interaction on a building site, any delivery of any program, a duty of care on the part of installers and those people doing the work to follow the guidelines; not to act negligently in relation to that installation and to make sure that they take the safety requirements that are a part of the guidelines that they sign up to seriously.
O'BRIEN: So Minister, that letter did call for at least like a one-day course to be run - a mandatory one-day course for installers before they start work on these houses. You're saying that training, that mandatory training was in place from July last year?
GARRETT: What I'm saying is that we finalised from 1 July a nationally accredited training module for installers in insulation. And I de…
O'BRIEN: And when did that become mandatory?
GARRETT: Well, the requirements under that training identification, in terms of what actually happens on the site, become mandatory this Friday.
But prior to that it has been the responsibility of an installer, under the program, to either have two years' previous experience, or a specific trades experience that's appropriate in the state in question, or to have conducted
the course themselves, and for anyone who is actually being supervised by somebody who has that requirement to have full occupational health and safety training as well.
Now that has been done in consultation with the training authorities, with the state authorities and others. And we have brought forward a module into an unregulated labour market that is now regulated as a consequence of the
decisions that I've taken.
O'BRIEN: So how could you agree for this program to go forward when the mandatory training for installers wasn't in place until - it doesn't start until this Friday? So there were - there've been people out there all year installing these products that did not have adequate training.
GARRETT: I don't think that's the correct way of representing what I've said.
The training module that was in place from day one, the start - the formal start of the program from July, we rolled the program out early in the year. We listened to what industry and other groups said to us, and we brought in
place a nationally accredited training model and it had a number of component parts to it.
Nobody could go on to a site and install insulation unless they had compulsory Occupational Health and Safety training, which refers as well to the standards in various states for that training.
And as well for…
O'BRIEN: That's OH and S training but not training in…
GARRETT: That - yeah, but just…
O'BRIEN: …installing the…
GARRETT: …let me finish. Let me finish, Joe.
And as well that there be supervision, as there is on building sites right around the world - right around Australia, I beg your pardon - of someone who had the appropriate identified training requirements which I've just run
through with you. So: two years insulation experience previous, specific building trades, or having done the accredited training course.
Now we've now taken the next step so to ensure that every single person who is on the site or who's even in the roof, who's supervised, will actually do that full formal training. And I've done that again on the basis of the advice
that I have received from the industry and from training bodies as well.
O'BRIEN: But, yeah, the industry was saying that mandatory training should have been in place for installers before this program started.
GARRETT: Well this program started when there was no training modules at all for installers. And the point is simply this, that under the guidelines of the program, it is a specific requirement that the Australian Standards that apply
to any particular element of the program must be observed.
O'BRIEN: Did you also receive warnings about safety concerns from government agencies as - we've heard about this letter from the communications group - the electricians group. Did you also receive warnings about safety concerns from government agencies?
GARRETT: Well, safety issues have always been a part of the consideration by us, in relation to this program, and they have been discussed with other agencies along the way. And that's why we now have Memorandum of Understandings in place, with state safety authorities in relation to issues that have been raised. I think it's really important…
O'BRIEN: And what…
GARRETT: …well I think it's really important for me to be able to clear some smoke away from this and point out that every decision that's been taken under the program roll-out, has been taken on the basis - both of advice that comes to me following the consultations with industry and adds to the existing state regulatory framework.
Anyone going to install insulation in Queensland, or Victoria, or New South Wales, is still required to fulfil the obligations that they have for health and safety in the workplace under the state regulations. We've applied an
additional level of it, as we've delivered this rebate. I think that's the appropriate thing for us to have done.
But it is the fiction for the Opposition to claim that we haven't taken the issue of training seriously and that we haven't taken the issue of safety seriously. We have and the decisions that I've taken in the last couple of days with foil
insulation, bear that out.
O'BRIEN: Young men have died as a result of working on this program, after you were warned about the dangers. Do you accept any indirect responsibility for those deaths?
GARRETT: Well in relation to foil insulation and the fact that it is a slightly more dangerous, or conductive material in a roof, and so consequently needs to be very carefully installed under the existing standards, the fact that we did
have a regrettable and terrible fatality, meant that I wanted to see whether we needed to take additional measures as a consequence of that.
And I took the initiative to ensure that we took that extra step. We banned metal fasteners in November, as a consequence of that. So that was a response from a minister. It was the right thing to do and I then took the extra
step of auditing some of those homes that ceiling insulation in Queensland as well. And in doing that, we discovered a small number initially, five of these homes - it's now a larger number than that, some 15 or 20; we're
getting more information by the day that had used metal fasteners. So we've now suspended that program. Remember, metal fasteners were banned under the program, and the safe…
O'BRIEN: So you do you believe it would be unfair to suggest that you should accept any indirect responsibility for those deaths?
GARRETT: The primary responsibility for anyone going onto a working site and conducting themselves, whether they're a builder, or an electrician, or a ceiling installer, or whoever, lies with the person who is doing the job, who
has the responsibility for doing the job and supervising others. And under…
O'BRIEN: What if they haven't had any training?
GARRETT: …and under the existing guidelines that were in place, which were the highest level of standards that had been ever delivered to this industry, if they were properly followed by the installers, properly supervising their staff as they should, then the risks to people are very insignificant.
Now what I say is this, of course safety's incredibly important to us. It must be in a program of this kind. That's why we've continued to lift the bar on safety.
But at the end of the day it's not a government rebate that has led to these terrible fatalities, its people actually breaching the guidelines as installers, not properly following the rules and regulations that we've put in place, and exposing their employees - in some cases - to a terrible risk and death. Now they have a responsibility as well. They have a duty of care under the state regulations that's in place. Anyone on that site under our program has occupational health and safety training requirements that must take place as a consequence.
So I think it's really important for us to get this in perspective. Deaths are a terrible, terrible thing. I feel it very deeply - and I'm not just sitting here saying that. But I'm also saying the people who are doing the installing owe a duty to care to those people that they're working with to make sure that the job is done safely.
O'BRIEN: Okay Peter Garrett. Thanks very much for talking to us this morning.
GARRETT: Thanks Joe.