The Australian construction industry has many challenges to overcome in order to realise international best practice in the prevention of illness and disease, according to environmental engineer and certified occupational hygienist, Kate Cole.
The most notable gaps include demonstrated leadership on health, the use of health risk assessment, raising awareness, and appropriate controls, she said.
“As an example, the importance of occupational health and wellbeing is key theme in the health and safety strategy of major projects in the UK,” said Cole, manager of occupational health and hygiene with Ventia, one of the largest infrastructure service providers in Australasia.
“Leadership on this issue at the highest levels of the client organisation was observed to be successful in driving a focus on ill health prevention during design, as part of the project culture, and through the supply chain,” said Cole.
This subsequently created more stakeholders who also took ownership and in turn, their own leadership on this issue.
“This is in stark contrast to common practices in Australia, where client organisations tend to push the issue of health onto the contractor as their sole responsibility, and rarely seeks information on exposure control as part of tender evaluation for example,” said Cole, who has travelled to the UK, Norway, Switzerland and the USA as part of a Winston Churchill Fellowship and saw many varied approaches employed to protect workers health.
Cole recently spoke at the SIA National Health & Safety Conference 2018, and observed that the use of an initial health risk assessment to drive decisions regarding controls, monitoring, and health surveillance, is a standard practice in the UK.
“Health risk assessments are not routine in the Australian construction industry and where they are conducted, it has been known for them to be completed by someone with limited competence and knowledge of the degree of risk,” said Cole, who is also supporting Transport for NSW on Australia’s largest public transport infrastructure project, the Sydney Metro, as the occupational health and hygiene manager.
The general level of awareness of health risks associated with construction also varies in Australia, Cole added.
“Some companies view ‘health hazards’ as something that is accompanied by a safety data sheet only, without regard to the health hazards which are generated such as respirable crystalline silica, diesel emissions, occupational noise, thermal heat stress, and so on,” she “Some companies have a great focus on wellbeing, but completely miss the need to have a systematic approach to preventing exposures to things that cause disease.”
Cole said it is becoming increasingly popular for Australian projects to include mandatory health and safety training in an online system, which is completed prior to arriving onsite. “Such training in health aspects is not always prepared by specialists, however, and is not always accurate,” said Cole.
Further, there is no centralised health surveillance scheme for Australian construction workers, which makes it difficult to understand the true extent of occupational illness
and disease in this sector.
“It is not possible to analyse trends in disease that may, in turn, inform future policy or specific action, as the current approach relies on workers compensation statistics, and therefore incorrectly assumes that all ill-workers take such compensation,” said Cole.
For every fatality in Australia due to an injury sustained at work, more than eight fatalities will be realised from work-related illness each year in Australia.
Although these statistics highlight the importance of focussing on health, all too often, Cole said that health has played a secondary role to its better-understood, safety counterpart. “OHS professionals hold a vital role in preventing illness and disease in the Australian workforce as their role should have at least an equal focus on health, in addition to safety,” she said.
Steps that OHS professionals can take to reduce illness and disease in their organisations include: