When construction of Melbourne’s iconic West Gate Bridge across the Yarra River commenced in 1968, it was to be the then Bolte state government’s crowning glory.

Two years into construction, that turned to disaster as a 112-metre span between piers 10 and 11 collapsed and fell 50 metres to the ground and water below, killing 35 workers. A subsequent Royal Commission found a litany of errors in the bridge’s structural design and erection methodology.

Incidents such as this reinforce the need for sound engineering to be applied on buildings and civil infrastructure.

One step in this area, Australia’s main representative body for engineers says, is to ensure that those who perform critical engineering work are subject to a mandatory scheme of registration. For years, Engineers Australia has been pushing for registration to apply to critical areas of work.

According to Engineers Australia Victoria president Alesha Printz, mandatory registration would ensure that those who undertake critical engineering work have the skills and knowledge necessary to perform the tasks, are undertaking ongoing professional development and are following a robust code of ethics.

Aside from high-profile examples such as the West Gate Bridge collapse and the Longford Gas Plant explosion which killed two workers in 1998, Printz says, shortcuts in engineering work have implications in lower profile examples.

Take, for example, a case where a pipe implodes because its thickness was altered as a result of calculations performed by parties other than a registered engineer. As well as injuries to workers, this would lead to costly rework as the pipe needs to be replaced.

“It confirms that their degree meets the requirements of the Washington Accord (a multi-national agreement between bodies responsible for accreditation of tertiary levels engineering qualifications within their jurisdictions),” Printz said, asked about the value of mandatory registration.

“That’s the first step, making sure that they have undertaken study.

“The second one is that they have got the competency. They acquire that through the five years of experience (to qualify for registration). Thirdly, they have to commit to 150 hours of CPD every three years. So they have to maintain their currency in their practice. That gets audited.

“Finally, they have to abide by a code of ethics.”

Under Australia’s current system of government, legislative power in respect of engineering work rests with individual states.

Queensland is the only state which currently has a system of comprehensive mandatory registration. Under Queensland’s system, those who perform work across 26 disciplines which cover the design of buildings, plants, machinery and products need to be either registered with the Board of Professional Engineers of Queensland or be working under the direct supervision of a person registered with the Board who assumes ultimate responsibility for the work.

New legislation in Victoria, meanwhile, requires engineers to be registered by the Building Licencing Authority or to work under supervision of someone who is registered to perform work under certain functions of the Building Act in that state. That legislation covers only building work and does not require registration outside of the building sector.

At a national level, Engineers Australia itself maintains a registration system through which those seeking to procure engineering services can conduct online searches to locate practitioners who are registered in the relevant area of discipline. Since the body does not hold legal power over participants in the engineering field, however, this system is voluntary and there is no legal requirement for those wishing to perform engineering work to be covered.

Printz said national registration would work in a similar way to the Queensland system and would require those performing work to either be registered themselves or work under the supervision of someone who is registered. Initially, the scheme would apply to five central discipline of engineering: civil, structural, mechanical, electrical and fire safety.

Whilst EA would ideally like to see the scheme fall under national legislation, little traction has been gained in this happening as the Building Ministers Forum has been preoccupied with other priorities. Accordingly, the organisation wants states to implement their own schemes but would like this to happen in a harmonised way.

University of Sydney Professor Brian Uy agrees that mandatory registration is necessary.

In medicine, Uy says practitioners have individual lives and well-being in their hands and understandably need to be registered. By contrast, with areas such as structural engineering, teams who design buildings or bridges have hundreds of lives in their hands at any one moment. Given this, he says it is vital to ensure that those performing the work have the skills and expertise necessary, are upgrading their skills and knowledge and are keeping up-to-date with technical standards.

He says the best way to do this is through a national mandatory registration system, which he says should cover most of the core engineering disciplines including civil, structural, mechanical, electrical and chemical. Such a scheme, he said, would provide those who procure engineering services with confidence about what they are getting.

Taking the current voluntary EA scheme as an example, he says those requiring structural engineering services can search online, discover those who are qualified along with the types of work for which they are qualified and be certain that those whom they engage are abiding by a code of ethics and continually updating their knowledge.

He says the scheme could be modelled upon EA’s current voluntary scheme, which could easily be scaled up to form the mandatory scheme.

Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge collapsed in October 1970

Both Printz and Uy dismiss suggestions about the push for national registration representing an attempt by the engineering profession to carve out a protected status for itself and unduly restricting competition. When public safety (not to mention taxpayer dollars) is at stake, the need to ensure that those undertaking critical design work are suitably qualified is paramount, they said.

Even after a scheme is in place, those who wish to perform engineering work but are not registered could still do so outside of areas for which registration is required or within areas where registration is required provided that this work was performed under supervision. Besides, the pathway for registration is open to anyone who wishes to make the investment to acquire the right knowledge and the requisite level of experience.

When critical engineering work is being done, public safety is paramount.

To guarantee this, Australia needs a national system of mandatory registration for engineers.