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CROSS Safety Report

The myth of quality assurance

Report ID: 960 Published: 25 November 2021 Region: CROSS-AUS


Overview

This report argues that, to achieve the objective of good quality construction that satisfies the design intent, there is no substitute for the practice of regular site inspections being conducted by the original design engineer.

It questions whether there has been too much reliance on the process of quality assurance systems to the detriment of the quality of the end product.
 

Key Learning Outcomes

For building owners and managers:

  • A quality assurance system for construction should focus on the end product and not be allowed to become a bureaucratic process of “ticking boxes”
  • When appointing the Structural Design Engineer, include the requirement to carry out sufficient periodic site inspections to satisfy the design intent

For structural and civil design engineers:

  • Consider making it a requirement of your appointment that you will specify the designated hold points for inspection and ensure that the relevant inspections are carried out by members of the design team
  • Be aware of the risks of accepting a design-only commission that excludes site inspections
  • Take every opportunity to appropriately inspect the works during construction and to use this as training for less-experienced engineers

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Despite the enthusiasm of those who promoted the introduction of Quality Assurance (QA) systems in the construction industry in the 1990s, the reporter’s opinion is that it has not been very successful for engineering and construction, and that too many have assumed it replaced the need for regular and periodic inspections by engineers in the field. The experience of “ticking boxes” or a checklist in the office does not necessarily provide good quality work on-site (or in the factory) without understanding the practical issues about what is achievable and what is involved in achieving a high-quality outcome.

The experience of “ticking boxes” or a checklist in the office does not necessarily provide good quality work on-site

It is the reporter’s opinion that relying on contractors and sub-contractors (who may not understand the design process) to manage the inspection of work using the method of quality control, is at best a very doubtful proposition and at worst a recipe for possible failures. As Phil Stevens said in 19921, 'As for the future of quality management, I would like to think that the audit fraternity will come to realise that there is an enormous gap between the pedantic view of quality management and what happened successfully in practice'.

Site inspections

The reporter believes that there is no substitute for periodic and regular hands on-site inspections by all designers to understand the complications of their design and to receive feedback on their design. As an example, consider a complicated reinforced concrete member where congestion of reinforcement can result in difficulties in placing wet concrete and maintaining correct covers. It is only by physically looking at and examining details on-site (or in the factory) that engineers will have this direct feedback on their designs and understand the practicalities of construction.

Through their involvement with several major projects involving high-quality precast concrete, the reporter has been concerned that the original design engineers have not been prepared to inspect their work in the field. Possible future failures were avoided in two projects when the reporter observed significant design issues and took action to recommend changes.

Thus, the reporter believes it is imperative that regular and periodic inspections be carried out by design engineers (senior and junior) to understand their designs and what is practical in manufacture and construction. The sooner mandatory regular and periodic inspections are required by the designers of all projects, the better and safer will be the construction industry in Australasia.

 1Stevens P, Quality Management Documentation and Auditing-Is it Out of Control? Concrete in Australia, Volume 18, No 4, December 1992.

Expert Panel Comments

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Quality assurance systems are required by most engineering companies, but it is the day-to-day decisions about what to audit and what to inspect that makes the difference between genuine quality assurance and half-hearted compliance.  Some companies with very mature third-party audited quality assurance systems may fall well short of achieving quality outcomes because ‘the culture’ within the organisation rewards speed and profit above the quality of the end product. It is not enough to have a quality assurance system; it must form the cornerstone of the company’s work ethic.

It is not enough to have a quality assurance system; it must form the cornerstone of the company’s work ethic

Historically the practice of the design engineer inspecting the work during construction provided dual benefits of ensuring that the work complies with the design intent, and providing feedback and learning for the designer.  While the construction industry cannot be held accountable for providing feedback and learning to designers, it is accountable for ensuring that the work complies with the design intent, and this aspect is not always well served by Quality Assurance systems.  Drawings cannot reflect the myriad of decisions that design entails.  

When construction work is inspected by someone who was not involved in the design process, or (as is often the case) cannot contact someone who was involved in the design process, that inspector cannot focus on the parts of construction that are particularly important, and must not depart from the design drawings.  As a result, important departures on-site can be overlooked, and equally time is wasted when unimportant departures are required to be corrected. The outcome is a reduction in the quality of the constructed work.

Risks associated with poor on-site quality assurance and control

The risks associated with an inadequate on-site quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) system include:

  • Non-compliance with the design intent.
  • Not having sufficient hold points to allow for verification checking at critical stages of construction.
  • Reliance on third parties who do not understand the basis of the design.
  • Human factors including not allowing sufficient time for QA/QC.
  • Not recording as-built construction correctly.
  • A safety incident occurring that results in property damage or injury to a person(s). 

These risks could be mitigated by: 

  • Legislation requiring designers to inspect the works and enforced by the Regulators.
  • Designers specifying when, how, why, and where hold points are required and the competency requirements of the inspectors.
  • Independent third-party verification and validation for all high-risk structural building work. The risk would be considered high if there were an increased likelihood and consequence of the design intent not being met, through lack of suitable QA/QC, and other factors as noted in this advice.

Thus, we would agree with the reporter that there is no substitute for the structural designer being on-site at all specified hold points and ensuring that the design intent has been met.
 

there is no substitute for the structural designer being on-site at all specified hold points and ensuring that the design intent has been met

As the reporter notes, there are some design engineers who believe that items that are shop-drawn (e.g., precast or steel) do not need to be inspected on the basis that off-site quality control is substantially better than on-site and therefore lower risk. Whilst this may be the case with reputable off-site contractors, this does not mean that errors in design interpretation, drafting translation, or on the shop-floor, cannot occur.

It should be noted, however, that the presence of the design team on-site may lead to genuine disagreements on best practice for project decisions during construction. Project documents should ensure a clear and efficient procedure is in place to resolve these disagreements (e.g. contractual hold points, RFI process).

Quality assurance in New Zealand

In New Zealand, site inspections are generally mandatory using the Engineering New Zealand (ENZ) Producer Statement and Construction Monitoring system.

Producer Statements give authorities confidence that building work will be or has been constructed to meet the Building Code and approved consent requirements. Engineers use Producer Statement documents to:

  • confirm their professional opinion that aspects of a building’s design comply with the Building Code, or
  • that elements of construction have been completed in accordance with the approved building consent.

There are three kinds of Producer Statements to provide verification at different stages in the design and construction process:

  • PS1 – design
  • PS2 – design review
  • PS4 – construction review

Construction Monitoring is an independent verification provided by an engineer to a client. It confirms that construction has been completed according to the building consent. Engineers are required to recommend the most appropriate level for the work and then carry out the agreed levels of monitoring.

Legislation in Australia – Mandatory Inspections

All jurisdictions have building compliance and enforcement systems that provide for inspections of some types of building work during construction. The builder is required to notify the building surveyor or council once a prescribed stage is reached. This triggers an inspection or, at least, an opportunity for an inspection. 

The 2018 Shergold Weir Building Confidence Report (BCR) noted that: “There are significant differences across jurisdictions in the number of inspections required and the notification stages. In some jurisdictions, very few inspections occur and for certain types of buildings there are no inspections required at all.” For commercial buildings, many jurisdictions leave it to the building surveyor to determine what inspections are appropriate.

Recommendation 18 in the BCR states: “That each jurisdiction requires on-site inspections of building work at identified notification stages.” Furthermore, the BCR recommends that on-site inspections be carried out by appropriately registered inspectors. These recommendations have not been legislated across Australian Jurisdictions.

In 2020 the BCR Implementation Team established by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) produced a Discussion Paper on Mandatory Inspections (closed 28 February 2021) and according to its website: “The Mandatory Inspections model guidance will be presented to Building Ministers for endorsement in late 2021 and is expected to be published on the ABCB website shortly thereafter.”

It is important to remember that structural design engineers, as well as building owners and managers, have an ongoing obligation to ensure that structures designed by them are designed to be without risks to the health and safety of persons, so far as is reasonably practicable, under work health and safety legislation across all Australian jurisdictions (as well as in New Zealand). This includes provision of information and the carrying out of, any calculations, analysis, testing or examination necessary on an ongoing basis. Recently in Australia, a number of structural design engineers have been prosecuted and convicted under work health and safety laws for failing to conduct adequate on-site inspections. Accordingly, implementing a system for conducting site inspections at appropriate intervals is of vital importance for satisfying structural design engineers’ duties under legislation. 

engineers have an ongoing obligation to ensure that structures designed by them are designed to be without risks to the health and safety of persons, so far as is reasonably practicable

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