When residents of the Opal Tower apartment building bought their dream home in the skies of Sydney Olympic Park, I doubt any of them were aware that there is absolutely no requirement that the engineers responsible for the building did not have to be registered.
It is a little-known fact that anyone in New South Wales can call themselves an engineer and there is no requirement that engineering advice be taken into account during the scoping, design and delivery of projects like these apartments.
When you tell people this is the case, the reaction is always the same – their jaw nearly hits the ground in disbelief. Electricians and plumbers must be licensed to operate. Builders must be licensed. Architects must be registered with the Architects Registration Board.
Yet engineers who oversee work on our homes, apartments, bridges, roads, rail, power and water systems, have no formal system to ensure professional qualification and competence. At least not in New South Wales.
Queensland has an engineer registration system and Victoria is putting laws in place as we speak. The ACT has committed to do so next year, which will leave New South Wales as the only eastern seaboard state or territory where this loophole exists.
This will make New South Wales a haven for every unqualified engineer who cannot legally practice in neighboring states, and expose the public to intolerable safety risks. The fact that New South Wales attracts around 3000 overseas engineers to the state every year underlines the extent of this exposure.
Professional engineers have been warning the NSW Government for years that this exposure exists. The Opposition announced in November that it would establish a registration scheme aligned with the Queensland and Victorian examples, if elected in March.
Every major engineering body in the country supports a scheme and, when polled earlier this year, 92 per cent of the public agree that engineers should be registered. Yet, the case for reform has fallen on deaf ears in Macquarie Street. It seems the Government is the last to wake up to the problem.
The question for the Gladys Berejiklian is simple: What needs to happen before her Government will act to prevent an even more serious and life-threatening situation in the future?
TOGETHER WE CAN ENGINEER A BETTER FUTURE
We’ve had huge cost blow outs on major projects like NorthConnex, Westconnex and the light rail. We ordered $2 billion in new trains which didn’t fit through our tunnels. And there have been plenty of recent warning signs from overseas with the Genoa Bridge collapse, to name one. Now we’ve had apartment buildings – home to 3000 people – with major structural issues forcing multiple evacuations.
What’s even more scary are the examples of problems the public never hears about. As you read this, major projects across the state are happening under the guidance of people who are not qualified engineers. And we regularly hear stories from our engineer members of unqualified engineers practicing.
Will we have to wait until an apartment building or bridge collapses before the Government will listen to the experts?
People should have the assurance that if they renovate their home and need to get an engineering report, the person assuring the work is a qualified engineer. They also have the right to know their government is taking a professional engineer’s advice on major project scoping, design and delivery.
A registration system for engineers would ensure the safety of the public is protected – it would guarantee the engineer signing off on plans for major projects and community infrastructure is a qualified and registered person, with the right knowledge, professional development and qualifications.
Engineers should be as well respected and recognised for their work as other professions that impact public safety, from doctors, to architects, to electricians. And that means not allowing non-engineers to do engineering work.
Until we adopt an engineer registration system, public safety will be compromised and cost blow-outs will continue.
The developer and the builder of Opal Tower are pointing fingers about who is responsible for this nightmare and undoubtedly there are legal and insurance issues at play there. But as the Government embarks on its enquiry into the situation, it should be prepared to uncover some inconvenient facts about the state’s lax regulatory framework.
We have warned the Government of the public safety risks of not having an engineer registration scheme in place, time and time again. Heaven forbid a disaster occurs but if it does, the only ones more exposed than the public is the NSW Government.
Perhaps a New Year’s resolution is in order.
Chris Walton is the chief executive of the Association of Professional Engineers Australia.