House debates

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Ministerial Statements

Home Insulation Program

1:30 pm

Photo of Peter GarrettPeter Garrett (Kingsford Smith, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—Insulation is one of the cheapest and most effective forms of household energy efficiency. Ceiling insulation can reduce heating and cooling costs by up to 40 per cent and these important factors were top of mind for the government in the development of the Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan, amongst the other significant stimulus measures this government put in place.

The program was announced on 3 February 2009, with an early installation phase ahead of the full program rollout on 1 July 2009. The initial program guidelines released on 26 February required that products installed under the program meet the requirements of the Building Code of Australia and relevant insulation standards. These guidelines also required that products be installed in line with the relevant safety requirements under the Australian standards.

Throughout this early phase, my department undertook significant consultations with stakeholders from industry, regulatory bodies, state and territory agencies and technical experts. The purpose of these consultations was to finalise the program design ahead of the full rollout, addressing key issues including audit and compliance, safety requirements and training requirements. Through this process my department convened roundtables and workshops with relevant stakeholders to determine all the potential risks related to insulation installation and to ensure they were fully assessed and addressed in the final program design.

I have requested from my department details of safety issues raised in these discussions in order to provide clarity around safety risks identified by stakeholders and how they have been addressed and incorporated into the program guidelines. I can provide the House with the following details around the key risks identified.

My department has informed me that on 18 February 2009 officials at an industry consultation meeting heard a proposal for mandatory training for all installers, with a concern that specialist skills would be required for some tradespeople, who would not necessarily have insulation experience. As a direct response to this work began on the development of the first ever nationally accredited training program for insulation installers, which commenced in line with the full program rollout on 1 July 2009.

My department has informed me that on 3 April 2009 a technical workshop between DEWHA officials, testing bodies, experts and other government agencies was told that insulation work in existing buildings could result in a high level of hazard from hazardous materials and occupational health and safety issues, with a likelihood of death or injury if risks were not managed. As a direct response, my department moved to develop a comprehensive risk assessment, facilitated by Minter Ellison Consulting, to identify and manage the full range of risks in successful implementation of the project ahead of the full rollout on 1 July.

My department has informed me that on 29 April a meeting with state and territory government fair trading authorities was told that the scale of the program would change the dynamics of the insulation market and increase the risk of substandard installations from unskilled workers. In response, my department has since entered into memorandums of understanding with state and territory fair trading authorities to ensure effective responses to household issues and the sharing of information.

As a consequence of these consultations the government put in place the first nationally accredited training program for insulation installers, and on 29 June 2009 launched the national Installer Provider Register, setting out the terms and conditions for every installer to operate under the Home Insulation Program and ensuring the public would have access to a list of registered installers before agreeing to have any work undertaken in their homes.

As I stated in the House yesterday, the National Electrical and Communications Association, NECA, wrote to me on 9 March to request that insulation installers under the Energy Efficient Homes package meet minimum eligibility requirements, such as courses run by registered training organisations. My department responded on 16 April 2009, stating that the guidelines referred to the wiring and minimum clearing distances as stated in AS/NZS 3000:2007, and that a training program was in development based upon existing units. That correspondence also advised NECA that they would be added to the stakeholder register as an organisation that may be able to provide as needs advice, consultation and information dissemination.

Following on from these and other consultations, including with relevant departments across government, my department finalised the assessment of the risks associated with the installation of insulation, informing requirements for safety, training, audit and compliance ahead of the full rollout on 1 July to provide for the efficient delivery of the Home Insulation Program on that date. This risk assessment was facilitated by Minter Ellison Consulting, and informed the final design of the program.

On 9 June 2009 the Installer Provider Register was opened for registration from installers around Australia, the first time a national industry register has been put in place. The full rollout of the Home Insulation Program was launched on 1 July. On 1 September 2009 the Low Emissions Assistance Plan for Renters was discontinued, with landlords eligible for the full subsidy under the main part of the program. From this time a pricing table was added to the program guidelines to promote competitive pricing and it was required that all quotes for installations were based on physical site inspections.

On 14 October 2009 there was the tragic death of an insulation installer in Queensland linked to the Home Insulation Program. A coronial investigation by Queensland authorities commenced and further action would be taken pending its outcomes. Advice was sought immediately from my department in relation to this incident and the safety concerns which it gave rise to. The next advice informed me the department was awaiting information from investigations of Queensland agencies. I was also advised that the department’s audit and compliance program included ensuring the insulation installed under the program met Australian standards, including the relevant safety requirements. I met with Malcolm Richards from Master Electricians on 20 October, and subsequent to that meeting I requested urgent advice from the department on a range of matters concerning potential changes to the Home Insulation Program to address the issue of foil insulation safety.

On 22 October I received additional advice. Foil products meet Australian standards and are a valid alternative for installing ceiling insulation in existing homes—for example, in hot and humid climates, for pitched roofs with flat ceilings and cathedral ceilings. Major foil manufacturers have products suitable for retrofitting and provide detailed instructions on how foil products should be installed. Warnings about electrical safety are a feature of manufacturers’ instructions. This advice detailed significant electrical safety components in training units and materials, indicated that EE-Oz reviewed the relevant pocketbook and stated that the information there covered electrical safety.

This advice also said that the Queensland Electrical Safety Office at this stage had made no recommendation that foil products be banned from use in Queensland. The advice also reinforced that employers must provide and maintain a safe and healthy work environment by providing and maintaining safe plant; ensuring the safe use, handling, storage and transport of substances; ensuring safe systems of work; and providing information, instruction, training and supervision to ensure health and safety. My department’s advice was that I should not ban foil products under the program unless the Queensland Electrical Safety Office or other relevant regulators changed their current policy positions or recommendations from the Queensland coronial inquiry came forward to that effect.

At a subsequent meeting to consider potential changes to the program which I attended along with MBA, HIA, EE-Oz, CPSISC, Master Electricians, AFIA, ICANZ, Standards Australia, Queensland ESO, ABCB and DEWHA, I stated that the highest standards of safety for householders and installers were of paramount focus for the Australian government and steps had been taken in rolling out this program to ensure safety issues were appropriately addressed. My department would continue to work closely with industry and relevant state regulatory agencies to further strengthen the safety aspects of the program. As a matter of urgency, I would be looking at the recommendations put forward and would not hesitate to further boost training requirements, safety standards and compliance measures under this program if required.

I understand that, as well, general views were put by: Master Builders Association, who noted that relevant agencies are responsible for building, work safe and occupational health and safety regulations in the various jurisdictions; the Housing Industry Association, who generally noted that foil is used for all sorts of reasons and that a ban would be premature; EE-Oz, who, even though existing national units of competency cover electrical safety, wanted to work with CPSISC to conduct a gap analysis of the training package and to advise the department of additional measures to include electrical safety; Master Electricians, who were very concerned in general terms that metal fasteners and foil insulation pose an unacceptable electrocution risk and that electrical problems could emerge at the time of installation or even up to several months after the work was done, but who, in general terms, were not seeking a ban on foil outright but rather a suspension of the assistance for retrofitting foil under the program until normal market forces returned; and AFIA, who noted that foil has been deployed successfully for over 25 years in a retrofit situation with very few safety problems.

On 28 October I subsequently approved guideline changes and additional electrical safety checks. Following the receipt of additional advice, I instructed my department to work with Queensland Electrical Safety Office and Master Electricians to roll out a targeted electrical safety testing program of homes with foil insulation installed in Queensland, starting at 10 per cent and with the sample sizes to be adjusted based on results. I instructed my department to further strengthen cooperation with state and territory occupational health and safety and work safe agencies to ensure installers were operating in a safe work environment, focusing particularly on supervisory conditions. I noted that relevant industry skills councils were already reviewing the training materials for gaps on safety issues.

From 1 November I announced the ban on the use of metal fasteners for insulation under the program. I mandated the use of covers over downlights and other relevant ceiling appliances and I mandated pre-inspection risk assessments by installers in each home. On 9 November Malcolm Richards from Master Electricians responded to these measures, writing to me as follows:

Master Electricians Australia commends you on your recent changes to the Home Ceiling insulation programs. The banning of metal fasteners, mandatory down light covers and the requirement for installers to undertake further training on the electrical risks of installing insulation was immediate, proportionate and is very likely to have saved lives …

On 18 November I was informed of a second fatality relating to the installation of insulation under the program in Queensland. On 24 November I was informed, tragically, of a third fatality, this time in New South Wales. In the ensuing period I instructed my department to proceed with the changes to the program that would mandate that every person installing insulation under the program must have completed the insulation installation training developed by the Construction and Property Services Industry Skills Council.

On 17 December I announced that all installers going into ceilings would be required to have a trade specific competency or prior insulation industry experience or to complete a registered or accredited training course—and to show evidence of this prior to 12 February, allowing a period for installers to ensure their employees took the necessary training in order to comply with these requirements. On 4 February I was informed, tragically, of a further fatality under the program in Queensland. On 9 February I announced the suspension of the use of foil insulation under the program, based on interim results of the Queensland electrical safety roof inspections, which I had initiated in late 2009, and advice from my department. On 10 February 2010 I announced that, subject to further interim advice from these inspections, all foil insulation installed under the government’s Home Insulation Program would undergo an electrical safety inspection.

Safety is a top priority for the Rudd government under this program, as it is in relation to all programs that this government brings forward. Providing timely and comprehensive responses to the issues that are raised by the industry have been a feature of the delivery of this program. Consultation with relevant regulatory authorities has taken place on a regular basis, as it has with industry bodies as well. That has been the consistent approach that I have taken to the delivery of the government’s Home Insulation Program.