Silica is silicon dioxide, a naturally occurring and widely abundant mineral that forms the major component of most rocks and soils. Crystalline silica dust particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause illness and disease.

Keith Bannerman from the Australasian Tunnelling Society presents an overview of the some of the issues that the industry faces. He outlines the initiatives of the Air Quality Working Group (consisting of stakeholders from each contractor and client organisation for each tunnel construction project in NSW) alongside SafeWork NSW, to address some of the industries toughest challenges with silica dust control.  

Keith points out that collaboration with industry stakeholders is essential to raise awareness of this important issue, and to develop effective and practical strategies that will ultimately be a positive step forward. The Air Quality Working Group meets bi-monthly and works together to improve health outcomes for tunnel workers specifically related to silica dust.

Who is this seminar for?

This seminar is useful to PCBUs and workers involved in tunnelling and civil construction projects.

About the presenters

Keith Bannerman is an Associate at Bamser, a firm of engineers specialising in tunnelling and underground projects.

Keith’s most recent experience has been in a client delivery role assisting the tunnel construction for Sydney Motorway Corporation on the WestConnex road tunnel project.

Keith has been an active member of the Australasian Tunnelling Society for over ten years.

Additional resources


Silica series: Collaborating with industry to tackle silica dust exposure

Presenter: Keith Bannerman, Australasian Tunnelling Society

Virtual Seminar Series - Transcript

My name's Keith Bannerman, I'm part of the Executive Committee of the Australasian Tunnelling Society. We're a committee which was initially founded in 1974 as a joint venture between the Engineers Australia and the AusIMM, which is a mining organisation, which really highlights that we cover both civil and mining aspects in the work that we do.

The members are made up of contractors, clients, suppliers, academics from the entire region, the Australasian region, Australia and New Zealand. It's not just purely engineers, but there are other professions involved. We're the peak industry for anyone digging a tunnel which is greater than a metre, up to 30 metres. So, any hole excavated, someone from the ATS has been involved in some way, shape or form.

The ATS also has a strong history of collaborating with regulators, whether it was through the generation of the Tunnelling Code of Practice in New South Wales, or working with Safe Work Australia in the recent revision of the Tunnel Guide, which was 2013 revision.

We're a group of volunteers, we are a member of EA, as a technical society. So last year we had our triennial tunnelling conference. I think we had about 1500 people attend over three days. Multiple, parallel streams running across the three days of the tunnelling conference, as well as tunnel visits to the M4 East and NorthConnex projects. As part of that discussion, the ATS initiated this working group.

The working group brought together people from all of the major tunnelling projects currently underway in Sydney. Stage 1B, stage two, Sydney Metro and NorthConnex. It brought people from the client side, the contractor's side, and people from even upstream. We had RMS representatives in the room who wouldn't necessarily be involved in this sort of a project. This sort of a working group isn't new for the tunnelling industry. Internationally, we're also affiliated with the ITA, the International Tunnelling Association, that had their World Tunnelling Congress last week, in Dubai, which I was luckily enough to attend, through sponsorship from the ATS. They have 14 working groups, one of those is a health and safety working group.

As part of that initial workshop, we asked a series of questions of the participants. The first one was, "How important is it that we address the issue of silicosis and tunnelling?" Some people were concerned what the results of this question might be. They had no need to be, the industry has a strong history of trying to work together and trying to address issues, whether they're technical or safety. There's always a very pragmatic approach from people who are involved in the tunnelling industry.

And, why was it important? There's some great points that are put up there. These are all by tunnelling contractors and clients, highlighting why they believe it's important to deal with the issue of silicosis. And there were some pretty common themes are there that it's, it's our problem, it's our industry, we need to own the issue.

And, the next question that was asked was about engaging with the regulator. Again, the ATS and the tunnelling industry, more broadly, often leads when it comes to this sort of initiative. Again, the question was asked, "How important do you think it is to collaborate with the regulator?" Again, very strong correlation. Again, one being not important to engage, five being very important.

The makeup of this cohort included senior tunnelling managers from all of the major projects, and the health and safety representatives from the client organisations, as well. These are some of the reasons why the attendees believed it was important to engage. Mainly, one of the key issues, and it's been raised a few times, is the technical understanding of, "Is something better than something else?" Each tunnel's different, and I think that's important to highlight. Maybe there isn't a one-stop shop when it comes to solving the silica problem. So, unfortunately each tunnel is bespoke, its own machine, the way you build it's different, so you need to address those issues. Unfortunately, it makes it quite hard to unpack for those who aren't involved day-to-day in the tunnelling industry.

We're hoping that, through the consultation of the ATS working group that we've establish, that we can help drive what is best-practice, and share some of this great knowledge, which has been developed in Sydney over the last 30 years. We've had a real up-tick in the construction of tunnels in the Sydney Basin.

Some of the challenges that came out of that initial meeting, training and awareness, can't see silica, it's not always the easiest thing to convince people to wear a dust mask for extended periods of time. Engagement and collaboration, across tunnelling projects, was a key initiative. A lot of the tunnelling professionals work on various jobs throughout their working life, they collaborate informally, as is often the case, but is looking to formalise some of that interaction to spread some of that knowledge more broadly within the industry.

The other one was to strengthen our standards legally and contractually, that's been talked about already. Improving the process of health surveillance. Everyone does it a little bit differently, so I suppose it was around identifying the segs, so we can compare apples to apples across projects and time, and highlighting the leadership of the importance of health in the tunnelling industry.

Some of the solutions that were also discussed. Leadership from the highest levels across these project, as discussed, it was a key goal for this working group to make sure that it was project team members who were involved in the discussions, not necessarily corporate-types. Sometimes there's a disconnect, and we wanted to make sure we got to the people who have the knowledge and the power to change things on site.

Again, all key New South Wales projects were involved. It was about developing practical standards through the development of, whether it was the last revision of the Safe Work Australia Guide for Tunnelling. The ATS has been pragmatic in highlighting some controls which haven't been practical or, in fact, impossible to achieve. It's important to address and put forward solutions which are practical in nature, as well as developing training and awareness packages with the guys from SafeWork NSW, and the other key stakeholders, whether it be Metro or any other major client delivery team.

The key areas of focus for the group going forward. Standardising practices across the industry where we can, understanding what is good practice, raising awareness, it's pretty simple, but, as we have more and more new entrants into the market, putting on orange shirts, they need to know why. Why do we have to wear a dust masks, and identifying key work tasks. Through this process there's been some activities, which you wouldn't necessarily assume would be high risk have, in fact, turned out to be. The routine visits by the safety and health professionals, has recently started, so actually getting into the nuts and bolts of defining the challenge that we have in the tunnelling industry.

One of the key ones, though, as well, was sharing lessons learned on dust control between projects, has been a really strong area of focus, so far, for the group. Without beating around the bush, there's a couple of multiple contractors that work in the Sydney Basin and they operate slightly differently. We're trying to understand, "What are the best practices that one contractor used to operate and what are the difference from another contractor?"  It's important to get that sort of collaboration in an open professional environment.

So the key points. It's about the effective management of the work, health and safety risks, and it relies on a collaborative approach for the entire sector. Throughout these discussions, there's been a strong focus on the role that the client plays. It's important. The schedule challenges which we face on these projects have been highlighted multiple times, and the impacts that they have in the delivery phase of projects.

Engaging with the professional engineering community is also important. Making sure that those people, who are doing design work, understand how important it is to design something which doesn't create excess dust, minimising cross-sectional excavation, those sort of things. And, also, the industry groups, such as the ATS, are a great way to actually bring people together from multiple areas. I'm not sure if this level of engagement would have happened without an industry group like the ATS. It's just the collaborative, pragmatic attitude of tunnellers that we have in the industry.

Thank you.

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