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Building firm owner hopes modular work platform will reduce injuries

David Grigor reckons the solution to saving lives on a building site is so easy, it’s like Lego.

His solution isn’t the kind of Lego adults impale their feet on walking over at night, however. His product, called Workdek, is comprised of modular, injection-moulded plastic panels that are sturdy but lightweight and are put inside the frames of a building to create a safety platform for builders.

Grigor hopes the product will upend the current use of ‘safety nets’ in construction, which are the current solution for preventing serious injury within a build (as opposed to on the external build). The nets, designed to reduce injuries to someone who has fallen, rather than prevent a fall, are not mandatory to use for those working at height. Nor is there some sort of New Zealand standard for the product, albeit New Zealand’s Health and Safety in Employment Act (HSE Act) 1992 requires that “all practicable steps must be taken to prevent a person at work from being harmed”, and has levied fines on companies that are found to not be using them.

In May last year, Construction firm RLT Homes Ltd and Ryan William Neutze, a sole trader builder, were pinged a total of $63,000 for failing to ensure workers were protected from the risk of falling from a height while building farm sheds at a Timaru property.

Substantial fines are also levied on injury – including a $150,000 sum Build Northland Ltd had to pay after a worker fell two metres onto his head and was left paralysed from the chest down.

But the cautionary tales have not prevented hundreds of injuries incurred by builders falling without nets, or with faulty or improperly fixed nets: 537 injuries under WorkSafe’s ‘fall from height’ data point were recorded in the period October 2019 to September 2020.

A building company owner for 25 years, Grigor does not like nets and believes many builders don’t like them either, and wants, rather, for the sector to be asking a different question.

“You know, we've got this mentality in New Zealand of the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff: ‘how do we catch somebody when they have a fall?' What we need to be doing is move that up to preventing the fall in the first place."

Like a platform
Grigor says while nets should, in theory, deaccelerate a fall, in practice this does not always happen because of the way they are installed. Either their anchor points can come out, or there’s not enough of a clearance space under the net to prevent someone hitting the floor.

"The way we build houses in New Zealand, there are all the timber braces internally that holds the frames up and keep the frame straight. So you're likely to hit the braces on your way down to the safety net. And one of the other problems is that there's this magical notion that if someone has a fall, they're magically going to land in the middle of a safety net. And more often than not, they might end up landing on top of a wall plate. So the whole system just doesn't work."

The problem Grigor and his staff of some 100 or so employees and contract builders identified with nets caused the company owner to look internationally for a different solution. He says the UK, “the home of health and safety”, had been using molded plastic platforms in construction for a decade, and one product stood out to him from the plethora in use.

Grigor visited the UK to become trained in its use and then started importing the distinctive orange Workdek product, but soon found the exchange rates and shipping costs were making it completely unaffordable, especially when Covid-related supply chain disruptions hit.

However, market feedback was so strong – especially from companies who believed the product could improve productivity and stress on the body of the builder - that Grigor revisited his business model.

"We got the product here and saw the reaction of builders and thought, gosh there’s a bigger problem here we can solve – that’s when we got involved in redesigning and looking to manufacture for the local market to make it more competitively priced." At present, the product is $65,000 for 500 deck panels, which Grigor admits is a significant upfront cost.

Huntly factory
While Grigor and his builders and four sales staff are based in the South Auckland suburb of Takanini, the business owner has spent some $3 million on buying and renovating a factory in Huntly where, he says, in seven or eight weeks, New Zealand-made Workdek will start to be built.

The product’s general design – a deck, connected underneath to legs and a foot, held together with pins and straps – is consistent with the British version but has had to be adapted to local conditions. British builders erect exterior walls first and put trusses on, and therefore require bigger decks, while in New Zealand frames go up first. Local decks need to therefore be smaller.

The colour of the New Zealand version has also been changed. Orange decks have become black, with a higher carbon content and therefore more UV resistance, while tools are thought to be less likely to be lost against a black backing. Legs and pins remain orange to enhance the ability to check everything is properly secured.

It is also stronger, able to withstand 900 kilos before collapsing (unlike 450 kilos in the UK) although a safe working load will still be just 250 kilos per panel.

To make the decks, a 25 metre-long, 1500-tonne injection molding machine has been imported from China, with $50,000 spent on upgrading the Huntly factory floor to be able to withhold it. A dozen people will run the factory, doing three shifts and pumping out 1500 metres of material a week.

Grigor says the product has already been on sale for two years and been picked up by one of the major Kāinga Ora building contractors as well as a construction training institute, and about 7000 metres of Workdek are in use in Auckland. But he’s not making any money yet, and sales won’t ramp up until local manufacturing starts. He says there is plenty of headroom in the market, even if more competition comes as expected.

“Currently there is in the order of 700,000 – 800,000 metres of nets being used in New Zealand, so there’s plenty of scope,” he says. “But when you're changing the landscape and the language, and …fighting this culture of ‘we’ve always done it this way’ and trying to show them a better, safer way … it takes time for that to happen.”

The portable product lasts about 12-15 years, and is fully recyclable at the end of that, which Grigor believes to be another strong selling point.

Despite the feeling that he’s at the beginning of a possible zeitgeist in building safety, Grigor admits he could have had an easier life involving less risky capital expenditure if he had remained solely the owner of a busy building firm.

“But I enjoy making things better, not sitting there doing the same things over and over – I'm open to new ideas and technology. There are sometimes you sit there and think ‘why did I start this’, but you’re in so far there’s no turning back. My wife thinks I am crackers."

On the building side, he says skill shortages and an increase in costs is taking its toll, while contractors rates have grown significantly recently.

"The borders are closed, and we've just got to get on. And there's no point whinging about it. It is what it is."

He says the biggest future costs will be materials and importing, which is "certainly pushing housing affordability a long way down the road at the moment."

He remains hopefully that Workdek and products like it will become more familiar on construction sites in the meantime, as companies start using and popularising the products.

"Once our factory is fully operational, 24 /7 , we can turn out about 75,000 metres a year, perhaps that's about a 10-year timeline. Hopefully, I can eventually make a bit more money and buy a second machine and speed that process up."

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