A major market failure is putting the lives of mechanical services technicians at risk, according to a new report released by the Australian Institute of Refrigeration Air Conditioning and Heating [AIRAH].
The Safety in the HVAC&R Industry report follows an independent survey last year of technical services providers about workplace health and safety conditions in the industry.
One of the main findings was that cost-cutting, time pressures, and lack of team integration in design and construction is creating a dangerous legacy in some buildings.
The risks include access conditions that are either hazardous or in some cases impossible to navigate for HVAC&R maintenance technicians.
“We found the increased safety risks and higher ongoing costs associated with poor access to HVAC&R plant and equipment are ‘designed in’ to systems from day one,” Phil Wilkinson, report co-author and AIRAH’s executive manager – government relations and technical services, says.
“There is a market failure at play in many scenarios.
“Those who would have to pay for the additional capital costs to provide safe access during the construction are different from those who will pay for the increased ongoing costs caused by the inadequate access.
“Sadly, there is no market incentive for the builder to invest in access solutions that will save the owner or operator money in the longer term, and a cost transfer occurs.”
Respondents to the confidential survey included licensed refrigeration and air conditioning technicians, installation and commissioning contractors, service and maintenance contractors, TAFE trainers and students, manufacturers and suppliers, facilities managers, and compliance and WHS auditors.
An opportunity the report identifies in terms of improving access is better lifecycle performance in terms of costs for both equipment and its energy use.
Where access is compromised, it can result in increased costs in operation of HVAC&R equipment including higher maintenance costs, higher energy costs, and higher replacement costs, the report says.
To mitigate access issues, AIRAH has suggested a number of measures including education for building owners about their duties in terms of ensuring safety.
It also wants to see pre-construction access reviews integrated into project management programs, so access issues can be identified and resolved in the early stages of design and construction.
Just as energy is currently rated under the NABERS scheme, access provisions could also be rated for safety and suitability, the report says.
AIRAH suggests a next step could be creating an access rating system and encouraging the Property Council of Australia to incorporate it into its building grading matrix.
“This would help the market to correctly value access provisions in a facility.”
Another issue highlighted by stakeholders was the lack of training available for many industry participants in the use of the new low Greenhouse Warming Potential refrigerants being phased in as the Australian industry winds back the use of ozone-depleting HFC refrigerants.
Both the synthetic and natural replacements carry new risks including toxicity and flammability, however, the report says these are not yet widely understood in the industry.
There are also issues with technicians “dropping in” new, flammable, low-GWP refrigerants into systems designed for the non-flammable high-GWP products.
“At present, we see a significant number of split system installers performing service maintenance and breakdowns to equipment they are not licensed to do,” one respondent was quoted as saying.
“With the introduction of R32 and hydrocarbons, it's only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.”
The authors note that the current Vocational Education and Training system does not adequately cover training in the design and installation of systems using the refrigerants that are likely to become standard in the industry over the next five to ten years.
“Training is lagging technology and practice, which is undesirable and has significant safety implications.”
For example, Certificate II qualified technicians have received no training in energy efficiency or natural refrigerants.
Split system installers holding a Certificate II are therefore often undertaking installation and maintenance work that is “outside of their competencies”.
Other challenges survey respondents identified included non-compliant or compromised electrical or plumbing installations associated with the HVAC&R systems.
Compliance with the requirements of the National Construction Code and applicable Australian standards is also highlighted.
“AIRAH receives many comments and enquiries from its members and other industry stakeholders regarding safety issues within the HVAC&R industry,” Tony Gleeson, AIRAH CEO says.
He says the survey project and subsequent report provided additional evidence and insights for the organisation to progress its advocacy on compliance.
An industry-wide strategy is recommended to improve safety standards and outcomes, including the introduction of a Nationalised license scheme or harmonised state‐based system for refrigeration and air conditioning trades.
AIRAH will also advocate for national registration for refrigeration and air conditioning engineers.
To address the training deficits around the low-GWP refrigerants, AIRAH will be collaborating with Standards Australia to develop and deliver training on new refrigeration safety standards to the industry.
The revised refrigeration safety standards AS/NZS 5149 parts 1-4 were recently updated and published following a six year-long review process.
AIRAH is also seeking funding to enable its Flammable Refrigerant Safety Guide to be delivered as free, online training. This will enable access for technicians in remote and regional areas.
Another priority the organisation intends to pursue is working with the Australian Building Codes Board to develop industry-agreed guidelines for minimum access requirements.
It is also planning to develop a guide to the Workplace Health and Safety Act and relevant regulations specifically for the HVAC&R industry.
In addition, it will be engaging with the Federal Department of Environment and Energy and Safe Work Australia to progress the development of codes of practice and safety guidance for the industry.
Access the full report here.