South African body corporates and property owners are not doing proper due diligence when appointing service providers and are, therefore, increasingly exposing themselves to potential criminal and civil action. In many instances of late, insurance companies have rejected claims and even endorsed policies due to non-compliant installations.
Service providers are predominantly being appointed based on the price of their services, with scant regard given to their qualifications, skills and experience to perform the work that they are appointed to do. This potentially places the health and safety of occupants of buildings and entire communities at risk. These risks are especially high when dealing with trades such as electrical wiring and plumbing where sub-standard workmanship can lead to injury and even death.
Many body corporates and property owners do not know that they are responsible for injuries and fatalities caused by defective workmanship that has been performed by appointed service providers on their properties.
“For example, if an incorrectly installed plumbing system on your premises causes harm to others, criminal and civil action can be taken against you. This is because you created the hazard by appointing the unqualified service provider who performed the sub-standard work in the first place. There seems to be a lot of confusion around the difference between public and professional liability among body corporates. Public liability refers to claims by members of public for injury, illness, or damage. This is opposed to claims by property owners or tenants for professional mistakes made or negligence by their service providers. There is a significant difference between professional and public indemnity. Professional indemnity does not mitigate your criminal and civil liability in the event of an incident on your premises that causes injury, death or damage to property,” Chris Coetzee, Owner of OHSS Consulting, says.
Coetzee is an occupational health and safety (OH&S) expert. He is a Lead Auditor who holds qualifications in ISO 9000, ISO 14 000 and ISO 45 001 and is currently completing his International Diploma in International Occupational Health & Safety Management.
The OHSS Consulting team has been working closely with the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA) since 2017 to significantly raise OH&S protocol across its large membership.
Moreover, the company is working with IOPSA to educate body corporates and property owners as to the importance of always using qualified plumbers and the significant risk associated with non-compliant plumbing workmanship.
This is especially important in these challenging economic conditions in which body corporates are tempted to cut costs.
Another concern is that there is very seldom a clear budget set aside for the appointment of service providers. This is especially in cases where there is uncertainty among body corporates, homeowners, lessees or sub-lessees as to who is responsible for installing, repairing, replacing or maintaining plumbing. Therefore, service providers are appointed haphazardly and mainly based on who is able to provide their services at the most affordable rate when emergency plumbing work is required. In many instances, service providers who are not qualified to install, repair, replace or maintain plumbing installations are appointed. With very little in way of qualification, skills and experience, they can offer their services at very low rates. The fees of licensed plumbers include their qualifications, as well as the training that they invest in their staff to upgrade, hone or refine their skills and the equipment and materials that they use to ensure compliant plumbing workmanship. Not to mention the use of compliant products. This is in addition to the investment that they make into their own OH&S protocols, which is very rarely taken into consideration by body corporates. It is treated as something separate – something that is simply done for just the sake of it as opposed to an important part of business.
All of these efforts are important to ensure the sustainability of the South African plumbing industry. The use of unlicensed service providers, thus, also threatens the wellbeing of the local plumbing industry.
Coetzee believes that body corporates and property owners would be more mindful when appointing plumbers if they were aware of the risks associated with substandard plumbing workmanship and the extent of their liability should something go wrong.
Herman Strauss, Director of SA Watermark, concurs. SA Watermark is a register of plumbing components that comply with the relevant South African National Standard (SANS) standards. It provides IOPSA’s members with a quick means of ensuring that the products or materials that they use are compliant and, therefore, fit-for-purpose.
According to Strauss, the majority of property owners do not understand plumbing. Many are under the impression that it is a simple trade with very little that can go wrong, other than water losses due to a leak and consequent increase in water bills, although an important consideration in a water-stressed country such as South Africa.
“The question that is frequently asked by owners of property is: if incorrect plumbing is so dangerous, why have we not had more incidents that have resulted in a loss of life or serious injury? I have a fairly straightforward answer: we have good plumbing standards in place and
an industry that is among the best in the world. This has helped to safeguard occupants of buildings and the general public. Therefore, there have only been isolated incidents involving plumbing installations thus far. However, with the increase in the number of unqualified plumbers operating in the country, we are starting to see more incidences. In fact, recently we have become aware of several instances where insurance companies have rejected claims and even endorsed policies. This is a clear indication that insurers have recognised the significant risks of non-compliant plumbing installations and are taking very strong steps to mitigate against it,” Strauss says.
The risks associated with non-compliant plumbing can be severe. For example, a hot water system that has been installed incorrectly, can explode. Incorrect water temperatures can promote the growth of bacteria in plumbing installations that cause illness. It can also scald, with vulnerable individuals most at risk. Another hazard of substandard workmanship that is often overlooked by body corporates is the potential of sewer gases to leak from a faulty plumbing system into a building, potentially poisoning occupants. Meanwhile, fire hydrants and hoses that have been incorrectly located and with insufficient water pressure cannot be used effectively to quell a fire on a property. Poor plumbing workmanship is seldom practical or efficient.
Like Coetzee, he reminds that the onus lies with property owners to ensure that their plumbing is fit-for-purpose. If they knowingly use the services of un-qualified plumbers, they could very well be held liable for loss of life or injury, or damage to property that occurs on their premises due to non-compliant plumbing workmanship, irrespective of whether they are aware of relevant laws or not. In order to mitigate such risks, property owners must ensure that they only use the services of suitably qualified professionals.
However, it is the responsibility of all plumbers to ensure that they perform their duties according to clients’ expectations. This is also in line with the requirements of the Consumer Protection Act, which qualified plumbers take very seriously, in addition to the standards, regulations and protocols that regulate this trade.
A qualified plumber has both the hand skills and knowledge of the applicable SANS standards, protocols and plumbing legislation to install, maintain, replace or repair plumbing systems correctly as required by their clients.
Dealing with a plumber that is registered with the professional body for plumbers, the Plumbing Industry Registration Board (PIRB) is a quick and efficient way for body corporates to ensure that they have appointed a competent service provider. All IOPSA members are registered with PIRB and are, therefore, able to deliver services according to the many standards, regulations and protocols that govern this industry to safeguard building occupants, communities and public and private property.