Silicas Dust and the complications of exposure are on the rise. Businesses in a variety of sectors, including construction, quarrying, and tunnelling, are now required by new Victorian regulations to give staff specialised training and information to job seekers who may perform “high-risk crystalline silica employment.”
Other new regulations mandate that producers and suppliers of goods containing crystalline silica (silica dust) disclose the quantity of the dangerous material in those goods, as well as instructions for handling them properly and details of exposure controls.
In November of last year, the Victorian Government passed the new regulations known as the Occupational Health and Safety Amendment Regulations 2021.The uncontrolled dry cutting of engineered stone is permanently outlawed, and eight silica-related infraction notice offences have been added. It also provides a licence system for engineered stonework.
Crystalline silica is present in numerous items, such as engineered stone, ceramic tiles, concrete, bricks, and marble. According to WorkSafe Victoria, working with crystalline silica can result in dust that can lead to fatal lung and respiratory disorders.
Five of the 73 claims WorkSafe Victoria received from workers with silica-related disorders brought on by job exposures last year involved fatalities.
- Silicosis can result from breathing in respirable crystalline silica (an incurable lung disease). Depending on exposure levels, silicosis can progress swiftly or slowly. It has the potential to be fatal).
- Lung cancer
- Kidney disease
- Increased risk of tuberculosis
- Possible increased risk of autoimmune diseases
The authority of WorkSafe inspectors has recently been expanded to enable them to issue prohibition notices and instructions about long-term but substantial health and safety issues, such as silica exposure.
Silicosis from Silica Dust – industrial manslaughter laws apply
It is important to keep in mind that if a fatality results from silica exposure at work, industrial manslaughter rules will apply to both employers and senior officers. This offence in Victoria is not time-barred, and work-related exposure is not required to be the only causing exposure.
New South Wales’ Silica Dust approach
On its website, the NSW Regulator warns that “uncontrolled drilling, grinding, or cutting of items or materials containing crystalline silica can generate hazardous levels of airborne dust.” Breathing in this dust causes serious and fatal lung diseases like silicosis, usually over a period of years.’
- NSW Inspectors have the authority to issue prohibition notices to prevent you from engaging in work that produces a lot of silica dust.
- If you don’t comply with a prohibition notice, Employers can face penalties up to $100,000.
- The NSW Regulator advises that:
- You must employ techniques that prevent or significantly reduce the creation of silica dust, such as using water or dust extraction systems on portable instruments.
- For unauthorised cutting, grinding, drilling, and polishing, on-the-spot fines of $3,600 will also be imposed on fabricators and installers of manufactured stone materials.
There are requirements for exposure; the silica occupational exposure standard (WES) is 0.05 mg/m3 (eight-hour time-weighted average).
A way of estimating a worker’s daily exposure to hazardous substances including dust, fumes, chemicals, gases, or vapours is time-weighted average (TWA). Along with the typical amounts of exposure to the hazardous material and the amount of time spent in that location, it is averaged to an eight-hour workday or a 40-hour workweek.
The TWA represents the highest average exposure that a worker can be exposed to during a regular eight-hour workday without incurring substantial adverse health consequences. TWA is measured in parts per million (ppm) or milligrammes per cubic metre (mg/m3).
Employers who fail to notify SafeWork NSW of a “adverse health monitoring report” are subject to immediate sanctions. When a case of silicosis is identified in NSW, doctors are required to alert NSW Health.
In that sector, there is a Stone Benchtop Code of Practice that must be adhered to.
Although there is no “direct” crime for industrial manslaughter in NSW, there is a crime for “reckless or gross negligence” that applies to both people (including senior officers) and businesses. We anticipate growing pressure to pass an industrial manslaughter law that is easier to prove and uses “negligence” rather than “reasonable practicability” as the standard for guilt. This law can apply to silicosis as well as any other risk.
Queensland’s Silica Dust Approach
In general, Queensland and New South Wales have similar policies and recommendations regarding the dangers of silica.
Similar to Victoria, it is important to keep in mind that if a death results from exposure to silica at work, industrial manslaughter rules will apply to both employers and senior officers. In Queensland, there is no time restriction on this offence, and exposure at work need not be the only exposure.
South Australia’s Silica Dust Strategy
New guidelines from SafeWork SA have been released to help the construction industry manage the dangers associated with silica dust.
The advice document provides details on:
- what causes exposure
- health effects
- how to control exposure risks
- implementing engineering controls
- respiratory protective equipment (RPE)
- information, instruction and training
- Safe Work Method Statements
- the duties of principal contractors on construction projects
The respirable crystalline silica programme of the South Australian Construction Safety Alliance (SACSA) is supported by SafeWork SA. To reduce the dangers of exposure to respirable crystalline silica, SACSA has created a safety important flyer that will be distributed and posted at the workplaces of its members.
According to Martyn Campbell, executive director of SafeWork SA, “adequate protection from exposure involves much more than just donning a dust mask, which by itself offers very little protection. Engineering controls are now more widely available and, in many situations, relatively reasonable to use; compliance with the standards can be attained by using simple, well-known exposure controls.
The Labor Government made a commitment to reduce the risk of preventable workplace fatalities and injuries, and industrial manslaughter is about to become a legal offence in South Australia. If silicosis-related deaths at work are preventable, persons running businesses or working at senior levels may go to jail or face a heavy fine.
Tasmania’s Silica Dust Approach
The revised model Code of Practice: Managing the Risk of Respirable Silica from Engineered Stone in the Workplace has been implemented in Tasmania. On January 19, 2022, the new code became operative in Tasmania. The respirable crystalline silica exposure limit at work has been lowered to an eight-hour time-weighted average of 0.05 mg/m3. Tasmania saw the implementation of this modification on December 22, 2021.
Western Australia’s Silica Dust Strategy
In charge of this problem is the Department of Mines Industry Regulation and Safety. According to other jurisdictions, the Department has established the same workplace exposure limit. Listed are the types of tasks commonly giving rise to problematic exposure as:
- Jack-hammering concrete
- Dry sanding of concrete
- Dry brick, concrete or stone cutting
- Abrasive blasting where the blasting agent or the surface being blasted (eg brick, concrete) contains significant silica content;
- Rock crushing
- Mineral sample milling
- Other tasks where dust is generated from a material with high crystalline silica content
- Crystalline silica particles that have just been fractured or abraded are more hazardous (eg crushing or cutting processes).
- Industrial manslaughter is to become an offence in Western Australia and silica exposure causing death to a worker or contractor will bring about exposure to that offence by the business or a senior officer.
Australian Capital Territory’s approach to Silica Dust
The eight-hour time weighted average (TWA) of 0.05 mg/m3 for silica dust is the required limit, according to the Worksafe ACT website. At this concentration, the health of the workers is still at risk. Therefore, under this TWA, exposure must be minimised to the greatest extent practicable. The requirement for continuous improvement is an element of WHS legislation.
The following risk controls have been suggested:
- Selecting materials devoid of silica or with the lowest silica content possible.
- Designing buildings with service recesses to reduce the volume of chasing.
- Grant vehicles with enclosed cabins, retrofitted with high efficiency particulate air filters, especially in dusty construction or mining environments.
- Using wet methods to reduce airborne dust
- Putting rubber curtains or water spray around conveyor transfer points.
- Using on-tool or mounted at a worktable local extraction ventilation (such as for mixing, crushing, milling, drilling or chasing).
- Vacuuming during drilling and using a vacuum clean-up rather than sweeping.
Depending on the task and the efficacy of the other controls, PPE, such as a suitable respirator, may be necessary in addition to other controls.
The ACT has an industrial manslaughter offence which can apply to a death from silicosis.
“May Use” will change to “Must Use”
It is important to note that even though a code of conduct may appear to not explicitly require a particular control measure, the proper application of the law will result in the requirement of the measure because an employer has a duty to take the unique circumstances of the business into account.
Simply put, an employer owes a duty of care to its workers, and if workers fall ill as a result of such neglect, the regulators will be harsh. Safety is a need for ongoing improvement. Employers are advised to regularly hire a qualified safety expert to conduct yearly risk assessments.
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