Fasteners: Our Duty of Care

The entire hardware industry has an ongoing challenge to ensure customers, regardless of experience, purchase the right fasteners for the right jobs. JOHN POWER reports.

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The Fasteners product category is one of the hardware industry’s largest, most dynamic and flexible sectors, with a strong presence in virtually all stores servicing both professional and DIY customers. However, the sheer size and diversity of the category means regulatory oversight applies only to specialist construction systems or projects involving building approvals and permits. Of course, DIY enthusiasts undertaking smaller jobs or repairs are free to use a full range of fasteners for mixed uses – even safety-critical tasks – without official scrutiny.

Given the impracticality of assessing or regulating every kind of fastener-dependent project in different environments, it is worth asking the question: What can we do as an industry to ensure, practically speaking, that product selection and application are appropriate and correct?

It’s a question being asked by different building authorities throughout the world in reference to both professional and DIY user groups, demonstrating that regulatory regimes must always be responsive to technical developments, as well as ever-changing user requirements and abilities. In the UK, for example, the new standard ‘BS 8539: Code of practice for the selection and installation of post-installed anchors in concrete and masonry’ has been introduced to formalize the steps of product selection, interpretation and installation in one critical type of fastener application, with special emphasis on procedural communication between architects, engineers and builders.

Let’s consider existing Australian regulatory frameworks and their scope regarding fasteners, starting with regimes affecting professional builders.

Checks & balances

According to Andrew Goode, product manager at the Otter Group in Melbourne, the main ‘checks and balances’ instrument overseeing correct building practices, including appropriate fastening systems, is the Building Code of Australia (BCA).

“Essentially, the BCA references over 150-odd Standards and covers both residential and commercial construction in Australia,” he says. “There are two sections to the BCA – two volumes – one relating to commercial construction and one to residential.”

Significant building projects, he adds, must comply with local government interpretations of BCA requirements, and it is not uncommon for council authorities to amend or strengthen BCA guidelines to take account of local considerations such as high wind levels at a particular location.

“With nails and screws in residential settings, the applications are mostly dictated by another standard, ‘AS 1684: Residential Timber Framed Construction’, often referred to as the Timber Framing Code,” Goode says. “There are three parts to AS 1684 covering Cyclonic, Non-Cyclonic and Simplified Non-Cyclonic zones, and it specifies the timber dimensions, grades and construction methods to be used in floor, wall and roof construction. It also specifies span dimensions and the type of fastener or fixing method to be used.”

Despite the existence of these codes, even professional builders need advice from time to time about the suitability of products to specific tasks, or even preferred installation techniques.

“We even see it [confusion] with builders who have been in business for years, who may not know exactly what fastener to use or how it should be applied, so there’s a lot of grey areas. We still have builders calling here saying they have used a product and it has failed, and that normally means it has shown corrosion in an environment where it shouldn’t have been used. So there is still some work to be done in terms of builders properly following the standard and knowing which fasteners to use in a certain environment.”

This begs the further question: If there are ‘grey areas’ for professionals regarding optimal fastener useage, what is the case with DIYers?

DIY conundrum

Advanced DIYers frequently undertake safety-critical tasks involving fasteners. Examples might involve the replacement of a timber step, repairs to timber decking, replacement of the fixing of a balustrade, strengthening a retaining wall, replacement of roof sheeting on a shed, etc.

In many instances, these unscrutinised projects involve structures that were subject to building inspections when initially built, but which lack the same oversight during repairs by a DIYer.

The matter becomes even more complex when considering that fasteners are only part of a bigger structural picture.

Jason Wheatley, national marketing manager for ITW Proline, which includes such well-known fastener brands as Ramset, Buildex and Pryda, says any consideration of fastener selection or application must also consider the nature of the substrate to which the fastener is attached, the immediate environment, the user’s level of understanding of relevant codes, and associated building systems.

“No business wants to put anybody in harm’s way,” Wheatley says. “But we [suppliers] only control half of the overall environment – it really comes back to the substrate, so if the user puts a Dynabolt into a hollow brick wall, if they use timber that’s not construction grade, if they don’t use as may bearers or joists or nail plates as they should to support the overall structure, then it doesn’t matter what fastener they use: it will eventually have some sort of structural issue.”

Information solutions

Both Goode and Wheatley agree that suppliers have a duty of care to make sure the best possible outcomes are achieved, with safety being the preeminent consideration. And the key to effective results, they maintain, is good communication at every level of the sales and merchandising process, including external online resources.

“On our website, we have How To videos and we’re quite specific about fasteners and how they are meant to be applied,” Goode says. “We also changed our consumer packaging a few years ago providing a lot more information regarding selection and use with the aim of guiding people to use the correct fastener for the application.”

Similarly, Wheatley says ITW Proline, “supported by our industrial cousins Ramset, Buildex and Pryda, who live and breathe in the more commercial heavy trade environment, are working to make sure our tear off sheets or product specifications are very clear – and that enables us to make some pretty clear-cut recommendations. We print on all or packaging the best way to use a product, showing which product is used in which application. From a Proline perspective, our job is to inform the consumer more realistically and we do that through whatever medium we have available to communicate, which might be on our own Internet site of through our training academy.” ITW Proline, he reminds retailers, trains between 1,500 and 2,000 retail staff per year (free of charge) in the correct identification, useage and preferred application of fasteners. Instructional online videos and manuals, he adds, though yet to reach their full potential, will only gain importance as crucial mechanisms for educating end users.

Neverending challenges

The process of educating, assisting and informing customers from all user profiles is an ongoing process. While informative floor staff can play a pivotal role in helping customers to make appropriate product selections, they are neither mind readers nor project managers.

Ongoing issues regarding the safe and appropriate use of fasteners include ‘new’ applications of fasteners for non-traditional purposes; Goode cites the example of bugle batten screws, originally designed to hold battens onto roof rafters, which are gaining increasing acceptance as structural screws in lieu of larger nails – a direct consequence of the use of more softwoods in the building trade. More powerful cordless drills are also having an impact on the nature of fasteners chosen for particular tasks.

In light of these kinds of practical realities, the most commonsense solution involves shared input from all stakeholders, including suppliers and retailers, to make sure customers are as informed as they can be.

Wheatley sums up this philosophy neatly: “What we have to do is engage and understand the end user, and make sure our retail partners have all the required information on shelf or within their grasp to make sure they can interact with the customer correctly.”

Finally, Goode notes, a heightened duty of care and better communication between the hardware industry and customers will not only lead to superior building project outcomes and improved safety for users, but it will also lead to healthier retail outcomes as customers opt for higher-quality fastening solutions.

More information

ITW Proline www.itwproline.com.au

Otter Group www.otter.com.au

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