Is air and health monitoring the new reality for businesses that work with silica containing products?
In February 2022, Safe Work Australia released new guidance material (linked here) for working with silica and silica containing products. Silica containing products include:
- natural stone products such as marble or granite benchtops
- cement, mortar and grout
- concrete, concrete blocks and fibre cement products
- bricks, and
- pavers and tiles including roof tiles.
Following on from the 2019 Code of Practice for Managing respirable crystalline silica dust exposure in the stone benchtop industry, there have been suggestions that a Code of Practice for the general construction industry is likely to be introduced in Queensland. This new guideline gives us some insight into what will potentially be included if this comes to pass.
“Workers are exposed to silica dust whenever it is airborne and they can breathe it in.”
We have known for a long time that exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) above the defined exposure standard is hazardous to the health of workers. The workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica in Australia is 0.05 mg/m3. The Safe Work Australia guidelines step out how to understand the risks workers are exposed to and establish industry standards for preventing serious injury associated with exposure.
A critical risk factor for workers suffering serious health effects from exposure to RCS is that the respirable, meaning the sized particles that can get deep into the lungs, can’t be seen with the naked eye. The customary grey dust on a construction site, while an indicator that RCS is present, is not where the danger lies.
When airborne, workers can inhale the small silica dust particles deep into their lungs where they can lead to a range of respiratory diseases, including:
- progressive massive fibrosis
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- chronic bronchitis, and
- lung cancer.
“If your workplace has any work practices that generate dust from silica containing materials, there is significant risk to the health of your workers and others who may be exposed.”
To manage the risk to workers and others the guidelines step out appropriate risk controls such as the following:
- Design, import or purchase materials that contain lower silica levels or that don’t need to be cut, ground or polished.
- Provide information for structures or materials which contain silica that you make, install, import or sell for instance, in a label, product information sheet or safety data sheet.
- Consult with workers, especially about how they can be exposed, and how the risk controls in place are working.
- Use more effective risk controls such as water suppression, dust extraction before relying on respiratory protection.
- Review housekeeping methods to ensure that dust does not accumulate or if it does it is not disturbed re-exposing workers and others
- Ensure workers are trained in understanding the risks associated with RCS, the risk controls you put in place, the use and storage of respirators.
- When using respiratory protective equipment ensure that workers have been fit tested annually, or more frequently if required.
- Monitor the risk controls that you have in place to ensure they are effective e.g., water suppression, dust extraction, and respiratory protection are effective and do not introduce more hazards.
So, how can you know if your workers are exposed to dangerous amounts of RCS? There are two courses of action where you know that RCS exposure is a risk. One, assume that they are and implement and maintain risk controls accordingly, or two, test to see what the exposure levels are. Workplace health and safety Queensland advises it is likely worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica will be minimised by using a combination of risk controls to stop dust at its source, remove dust from the air and stop dust from spreading, ensuring these control measures are being used appropriately and are well maintained. However, air monitoring is recommended where there is uncertainty about the effectiveness of the risk controls in place.
“You must do air monitoring to determine the airborne concentration of respirable crystalline silica at your workplace if you are not certain if you are exceeding the exposure standard, or monitoring is necessary to find out if there is a risk to health.”
Air monitoring involves a competent person, such as a certified Occupational Hygienist, testing the work environment to determine sources of exposure, how much your workers are being exposed to, and how effective your risk controls are. The guidelines recommend that this process is repeated annually, if a worker becomes unwell, or where changes to the work area, equipment or processes occur.
Health monitoring is required if you know there is a risk to the health of your workers from RCS exposure and choose not to do air monitoring, or air monitoring identifies that the health of workers is at risk. The Safe Work Australia highlights saw operators, excavators, jackhammer operators, pavers cutting concrete blocks, labourers and supervisors as those who may require health monitoring.
“If there is a risk to the health of your workers because of exposure to silica dust, you must organise and pay for health monitoring.”
The type and frequency of health monitoring is defined in legislation and involves pre-employment and regular health screening carried out or supervised by a doctor. When collecting sensitive information relating to workers, appropriate privacy measures need to be implemented.
Where your workers or others are at risk of exposure to silica, you need to conduct a risk assessment and define how your organisation will manage this exposure including what risk controls will be implemented, how they will be monitored and reviewed and if air and health monitoring are applicable, how these will be managed. A Silica Management Plan is one way to define and document how your organisation is meeting is obligations and ensure that these measures are able to be communicated to relevant people such as clients and workers.
Learn more about implementing WHS management plans
For more information on work health and safety for your business, or to book a Complimentary Consultation, get in touch with the team from Masula Compliance on 07 3348 3666 or email firstname.lastname@example.org