On July 2, pedestrians on a street in the inner northern Melbourne suburb of Carlton were shocked when glass shattered and fell only metres from them after an apartment balcony exploded without warning – the second such collapse which had happened at the complex in a matter of weeks.

A similar event happened in Brunswick last year.

Whilst cladding has taken most of the attention following the Grenfell tragedy, issues associated with other products such as glass which fail to meet standards required under the National Construction Code pose a serious threat to public safety.

Sahil Bhasin, national general manager of property consultancy company Roscon, says one factor behind what appears to be a growing incidence of importation of non-conforming products revolves around the growing number of players which operate in the mid-tier building sector who have complete supply chains set up from overseas countries such as China. Whilst not intentionally cutting corners, Bhasin says many of these players choose to purchase from the cheapest supplier, who in turn has cut corners in order to reduce costs – often producing fake certificates of compliance in the process.

Where this raises concerns with glass, he says, is in the heat soaking process which attempts to eliminate any nickel sulphide inclusions in the glass which can cause fragmentation. Because it is not possible to independently test that heat soaking has been done after the fact, Bhasin says this is a common area where low cost overseas manufacturers will seek to cut costs. This is especially the case as heat soaking is costly process (the glass has to be put through a furnace, often at a separate plant to which the glass has to be transported, which has to be at the optimum temperature).

When heat soaking is not performed, Bhasin said spontaneous explosions can occur if sudden thermal temperature changes cause the nickel sulphide to react.

As well as endangering the public, Bhasin says faulty glass can lead to disproportionate costs associated with repairs. When glass shatters in a shower screen, for example, he says you need to essentially strip back the entire bathroom to allow for the waterproofing membrane to be redone throughout the whole room – resulting in a $25,000 bathroom repair bill for what was a piece of glass worth only hundreds of dollars.

Beyond heat soaking, Australian Windows Association chief executive officer Tracey Gramlick says other problems can occur. Damage to the edge of the glass whilst it is being handled or installed can have a ripple effect and lead to breakage, she said. Further problems can arise, meanwhile, where the thicknesses are not calculated correctly according to the requirements of the NCC in respect of load which the building is expected to handle in terms of wind and other things – a situation she says could lead to glass being used which was not sufficiently thick for the situation and people falling back through the glass when inadvertently falling or leading against it.

Gramlick says even a small problem with the glass can cause serious injury if impacted at its weak point. In a recent case, a four-year-old Perth boy suffered lacerations after glass which had been installed in the shower recess approximately eighteen months earlier exploded.

Bhasin says the absence of any ability to test for nickel sulphide means the best way to ensure that heat soaking has been done is to put a qualified person from Australia on the ground to visually verify the process as it is being completed – a cost he says pales into insignificance compared with either overall construction costs for a large apartment building or that of rectifying problems which do occur. As an alternative, builders could use CCTV to monitor the heat soaking process remotely from Australia.

For consumers, Gramlick advises using accredited glaziers and asking for evidence that the product meets applicable NCC standards.

She says glass can cause serious injury and/or fatality, and that there was no guarantee that even toughened glass or safety glass will be free from defects.

Finally, Gramlick expressed frustration that excessive levels of attention have been afforded to one or two singular products (cladding and electric cables) in terms of non-compliance and that focus has shifted away from the broader issue of non-complying product toward a narrower one revolving around cladding and cables.

“What tends to happen is that we get a little bit of traction and people talk about the diversity and the vastness of issues about non-complying products and non-conforming products,” she said. “And then it seems to be that because they (cladding and cables) are often dramatic or could be fatal that all the focus and attention goes on to one product.

“We’ve been talking about this problem (non-conforming products) for years. We finally got traction through the Building Ministers Forum and there were a lot of people doing a lot of work.

“All of a sudden, you get these two significant issues (cladding and cables) and they deflect attention from the greater need to think of the building as a whole and not just one particular product.”

  • The users of these non-compliant imported products are doing it deliberately and it is related to profit – why else would they do it? The first thing we do is blame someone in China instead of the end user. Designers – Builders – Certifiers all are aware of the Code. The talk fests are all we get – lip service. Apart from the significant public safety issue – the damager to our fabrication- manufacturing industries is immense. It must also be a breach of our competition laws -that our local industry has to comply but these builders can install any imported rubbish .. Anne Paten calls it "profits over people" and she is right. Why aren't we just make them fix it at their cost

  • Every one knows most imported steel does not meet Australian Standards, and should not be used; but I have not seen any mountains of steel rejected by the building industry. The problem is voiced everywhere but the Governments pretends its not happening. It is not against the law to import; it is against the law to use a faulty product. We have created a problem for the next generation to inherit possible collapses of buildings and deaths.
    At one stage someone was advertising a mountain of glass balustrade at half the price of most other people.
    I have not heard of any prosecutions.
    We need to have paper trails of all building materials that go into a building, and, certificate of occupancy should not be issued until all verification is done.

  • Gramlick raises the most pertinent point, the need for QC teams 24×7 in the factories in China and elsewhere. Otherwise there is no guarantee the products' paperwork is legitimate or that the manufacturing processes are correct and no corners have been cut. This is my experience from manufacturing bathroom pods in China.
    Unless we require full liability for the provenance of imported construction products to be carried by the builder or Australian supplier we will not stop this risk.

  • Thanks for continuing to highlight the extent of importation of non-compliant and unsafe product Andrew. There needs to be a far broader awareness of this downside to globalisation – the blind pursuit of the cheapest product and ignorance of fraudulent certification. Australian Window Association Chief, Tracey Gramlick, makes an excellent point that certain dangerous incidents tend to single out a couple of specific materials, which takes attention away from other common problems such as faulty windows and steel, asbestos and lead inclusion etc. If people think these are isolated cases there is a real danger they may think a resolution of those examples will make everything right again. Ignoring the broader issue brewing as further structures are made with other non-conforming products and the increasing risk of harm. As she says, these problems have been known about, evidenced and lobbied against by industry associations for many years now for reasons of compliance, safety and a level standards playing field. It is time to take a bigger picture approach to what is an endemic worldwide problem to avoid another knee-jerk reaction to tragic incidents.

  • Congratulations Andrew on your article, it is a start to exposing glass issues.

    I believe it is known from the Senate Inquiry Non-Conforming Building Products, exposed by Dr Nathan Munz (2016) that the current glass Standard impact test has been proven life threatening, creating shards of potential killer glass.

    I quote:
    “Gramlick says even a small problem with the glass can cause serious injury if impacted at it's weak point”.
    What would that weak point be ? No one wants to reveal that weak point?

    The test method does not represent what happens in the real world when a body meets glass.
    Dr Nathan Munz
    * Although resides on the glass Standards Committee, has been campaigning against that Standards Committee members, that only care about their bottom line, PROFIT.
    * Can demonstrate the problem exposing any glass 6 mm and under in thickness with correct test parameters produces killer shards of glass, one Senator witnessed the correct test, and all the Senators at the Inquiry in Melbourne (2016) were presented with a killer shard.

    Another case of system failure to protect the public.

  • As Bhasin says fake certification is widespread and has been for years. Likewise, Gramlick is correct. We have non-compliance across the 'whole of industry' – not just cladding and cabling – almost every product used in building. But we also have non-compliant building methods and as with all products, the industry as a whole is not on the agenda. No enforcement is the root cause and a lack of will to penalize and stamp out what our now long-term practices.

    This reactive approach and focus on the cladding and cabling, combined with much spin from the Government agencies serves to to divert attention from the 'big issue' which is a totally out-of-control industry.

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