Catching up with Joe Edwards

After many years on the Contractor’s Federation national executive, Joe Edwards made a graceful exit at this year’s CCNZ AGM. He talks to Alan Titchall about the industry in general, Pike River and his expanding retirement orchard scheme.

After 13 years on the CCNZ (formerly the Contractor’s Federation) national executive Joe Edwards stepped down this year from the executive, although he remains the immediate past president.

“I think it’s time to let the younger people coming through get involved. I think if I stay on I will get too blinkered on what has worked in the past,” he says.

Construction manager at McConnell Dowell, Joe started his 40-year career as an operator on the large earthworks project at Twizel, and has covered a myriad of jobs in civil contracting since. Not surprisingly, his wisdom is sought after and he still sits on a number of industry boards, including the Contrafed Publishing board, which he joined back in July. Joe is also on the board of the MinEx Safety Council, and is the chairman of the Mines Rescue Trust Board, where he is one of the few members not recruited directly from one of the rescue services.

Another appointment was to WorkSafe’s Extractives Industry Advisory Group (EIAG).  Aimed at safety improvements to the mining and tunnelling industries, EIAG is one of a number of advisory bodies set up under the WorkSafe New Zealand Act 2013 as a way of independently overseeing the effectiveness of the regulatory framework and WorkSafe operations.  (The group has an initial shelf-life of two years, at which time the WorkSafe board will review its effectiveness. The group sets its own meetings and information gathering processes, and is provided with secretariat support by WorkSafe.)

Joe was last profiled in this magazine four years ago when he said that if he got to be the Federation president, one of his primary goals would be to unite the industry with the merging of Roading New Zealand and the Contractor’s Federation.

“In the past there has been some improvement in relations with Roading New Zealand and over the past year this has come significantly closer,” he said back in 2011.

“If I’m elected president this is certainly an agenda I would want to see finalised. I’ve always believed that a united and creditable voice from the construction industry will be far more effective than two voices that do not always agree.”

His wish came true in August last year when Civil Contractors NZ (CCNZ) was formed from the merger of the two contractor associations.

“I was very supportive of the merger for a number of years for a number of good reasons,” he says now.

“I could see an opportunity to work together towards common goals. Dave Jewell and I got the ‘memorandum of understanding’ underway and it was current CCNZ president Dave Connell with Cos Bruyn who finally set things in motion and saw the merger over the line.

“I believe that we [now] have a very talented national executive. It is well led, has the right mix of skills and is focused on the key issues facing the construction industry. I have full faith in their abilities to take CCNZ forward.

“The executive is also well supported by a branch structure with most branches focused on wide industry issues.

“The concern for me is still the number of contractors that are not members and who directly continue to benefit from the CCNZ work.

“One example of this is the work we did to win the Voidable Transactions court case, which is something that really benefited all New Zealand businesses. This is just one of many association wins.

“And my view is that the more members we have, the stronger the voice of industry and the opportunity to increase benefits.”

The Construction Safety Council

A subject that came in for much discussion at the last CCNZ executive meeting and at the CCNZ AGM in Wairakei was the future of the Construction Safety Council (CSC). It was generally noted that it needed more ‘teeth’ and funding. Do you agree?

“First, I believe the Safety Council is a fantastic concept. It was put in place some years ago, when Dave Jewell was president.

“It brings together all the vertical and horizontal industry interests and is recognised by government agencies.

“Unfortunately, there are interests in the group that seem out for themselves rather than the general industry good. It has to work as a level playing field.

“The new CEO, Peter Silcock, with the support of the national executive and key CSC board members such as Roger McRae, is putting a lot of effort into the CSC to ensure it has the resources to focus on continued and sensible high safety standards, and achieve its potential as the wider construction industry safety organisation.”

Attracting young blood

Talking at the opening CCNZ conference event this year Joe was passionate about attracting young people into the industry.

“It’s very important for this industry to attract the right young people, as they are, and will be, our key asset.

“We need to make sure our trades are sought-after qualifications and our new apprenticeship scheme will result in a qualification that is equal to, if not better, than anything else out there.

“It is great to see Bailey Gair on the CCNZ board. We need to attract and create a career path for more women in the industry, as they bring a different and valuable perspective.

“There are more and more women holding a wide variety of roles in the construction industry and this is not only very positive, but it is also attracting more women to see what a good and worthwhile career construction offers.

“The way to attract anyone into construction, including women, starts much earlier than choosing a career on leaving school.

“It is essential that we all encourage young people to study science and maths. These subjects are the cornerstone of many careers, including construction. Construction needs to be seen as a lifelong career choice, and one where you can really make a positive difference to society.”

Pike River Mine

I don’t believe you have mentioned the Pike River Mine disaster in this magazine, yet McConnell Dowell was very involved in its construction.

“I was closely involved with the project at Pike River and we had a crew come out of the mine within three minutes of the first explosion, and another shift waiting at the lamp room to go underground for the night shift.

“It strengthened a lot of my thinking about workplace safety and why I got involved with the formation of the new Safety Act and regulations.”

Did you have any concerns over the project at the time?

“We actively looked at the safety of what we were doing and the immediate environment around us. This is one of the key learnings from the tragic events at the mine – we now realise we all need to be much more vigilant about looking beyond our immediate ‘patch’ at the safety of the wider environment we work in, even if we have no involvement in it, and do not control it.

“It’s critical to identify who or what could impact on the safety of ourselves and our workmates – particularly that which is potentially out of our control.

“We went to the morning meetings and didn’t once realise adequate [gas] protection wasn’t in place. We could see the wires and detectors in place in the mine roof and presumed the gas detectors were working.

“Now, we would ask many more searching questions and satisfy ourselves that the safety of our people was not compromised by factors outside our control. It was a terrible tragedy and we can’t afford something like that to ever happen again.

“Rebecca Macfie wrote a book Tragedy at Pike River Mine (2013) that explains a lot of the wider issues. I hope it will help the public to understand what happened and how safety may be improved in the future.

“Technically speaking, there were also some real successes in the construction of the mine access, and in time I hope we will be able to remember those more positive learnings as well.”

Are you pleased to see new and comprehensive health and safety regulations being introduced?

“Absolutely.  I am a grandparent now, so more than ever pleased to see the working environment becoming safer.

“All stakeholders and clients need to step up – many just pay lip service to H&S at times. The attitude seems to be ‘If the boss doesn’t wear a hard hat – then it is fine not to wear a hard hat’.

“I also think safety starts from home. If you wear shorts and jandals mowing the lawns at home, will you be any better at work?”

The future

In your last profile you mentioned an orchard you own in Auckland. Are you still enjoying your horticultural sideline?

“Yes. Orcharding is like construction in many ways, it is full of challenges, but at the end of the day you are proud of what you have produced.

“In construction we build legacies that benefit society for many years to come. The orchard’s reward is seeing truckloads of fruit leaving the gate. To continue the challenge on the orchard, Diana [Joe’s wife] and I have just finished planting 2600 feijoa trees, on top of the existing 4150 citrus trees already planted and producing. The orchard is our retirement project.

“Meanwhile, I still have a day job and I am looking forward to the new challenge of the Contrafed Publishing board and completing commitments I have made to the other industry organisations that I am involved with.”

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