Regulators take action on back of new silica dust workplace exposure standard

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Monday, 20 January, 2020 - 14:45
Industry news
National News

A majority of WHS ministers around Australia recently agreed to halve the workplace exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica to a time-weighted average of 0.05mg/m3 over an eight-hour day.

The level is in line with those proposed by Safe Work Australia earlier in 2019, which ratified a new national exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica to be reduced from 0.1 mg/m3 by 50 per cent.

Stonemasons working with engineered stone, which is commonly used for kitchen and bathroom benchtops, are especially at risk due to the high the concentration of silica in the products they work with.

Employers should review their silica dust control measures and, if uncertain about exposure levels in their workplace, undertake air monitoring to confirm that the new standard is not being exceeded.

The Victorian Government urged employers to do everything they can to protect workers from silica dust with the introduction of the new national exposure standard.

It also went one step further and urged employers to take a precautionary approach and only expose their workers to levels below 0.02mg/m3.

The Victorian Government has already banned the dry cutting of engineered stone and establishing a health screening program for Victoria’s 1400 stonemasons.

WorkSafe Victoria has visited more than 930 workplaces and issued 270 compliance notices ordering employers to improve their safeguards against exposure to silica dust.

The regulator has accepted 102 claims for silica-related diseases in 2019 to date, up from 28 in 2018.

More than 50 workers have been diagnosed since health screening was offered to all stonemasons earlier this year.

“Employers need to comply with the new national standard but we’re urging them to go further to protect their workers from this silent killer,” said Victorian Minister for Workplace Safety Jill Hennessy.

“WorkSafe is closely monitoring the industry and will prosecute any employer that fails to put appropriate measures in place.”

“Silicosis has had a debilitating effect on too many tradies – that’s why we’ve banned dry cutting and are rolling out an unprecedented enforcement blitz to help protect Victorian workers.”

The Victorian Government’s move comes on the heels of a SafeWork NSW push to increase awareness of silicosis and standardised practices of exposure prevention.

SafeWork NSW has visited every stone manufacturing business in the state and in addition, has had 448 interactions with businesses in the tunnelling, domestic and civil construction, foundries, and building products industries.

SafeWork NSW is two years into a five-year strategy and is on course to drive down future cases of silicosis, said executive director specialist services, Andrew Gavrielatos.

“The strategy is comprehensive and involves four key components - awareness, interaction, research, and legislation,” Gavrielatos said.

“We’re approaching silica exposure from all angles, for example, in addition to a media campaign ‘Which Mask will you Wear?’, we’ve trained 184 inspectors to deliver education and compliance initiatives, we’ve held 48 industry forums, presentations and workshops, and we’ve instigated partnerships and research into better exposure prevention techniques.”

The regulator is also working with icare to improve knowledge of and access to health monitoring.

Last financial year a total of 3,563 workers exposed to silica underwent health monitoring provided by icare’s dust diseases care.

During inspector visits, SafeWork NSW issued a total of 617 improvement and prohibition notices to ensure businesses comply with their work health and safety obligations around silica exposure.

Eighty per cent have been fully complied, with the majority of the remaining relating to workers having a health monitoring test where SafeWork NSW is awaiting confirmation from icare.

“As the number of notices complied with shows, silica exposure can be controlled by following simple steps,” said Gavrielatos.

“Cut silica-containing products with water, use ventilation and dust capture systems, wear a mask, and clean up with water or an H or M class vacuum.”