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.

In this seminar, Daniel Beavon discusses the activities being undertaken to support SafeWork NSW’s current strategy targeting silica control in the infrastructure sector.

Who is this seminar for?

This seminar is useful to managers, supervisors and workers in the construction industry or infrastructure sector who have a duty to manage the work health and safety risks posed by silica dust.

About the presenters

Daniel Beavon is the Manager of the Infrastructure Team, Construction and Asbestos Services at SafeWork NSW. He works with industry to improve WHS practices and reduce the incidence of workplace fatalities and serious injuries and illness across large infrastructure projects in NSW.

Additional resources


Silica Series: SafeWork NSW’s Silica Strategy in the Infrastructure sector

Presenter: Daniel Beavon, SafeWork NSW

Virtual Seminar Series - Transcript

I'm the manager of the infrastructure team with SafeWork NSW. We have an overall silica strategy, but I guess it's important today for you to recognise that most of what I'm going to be covering, while I will cover the overarching strategy is about what we in the construction and asbestos services team are doing with particularly the infrastructure in construction industry sectors.

Our Work, Health and Safety Roadmap was developed after we became SafeWork NSW. We split from the old WorkCover NSW into three sectors, which was the Workers' Compensation, the Workers' Compensation regulator, and obviously SafeWork, which is the Work, Health and Safety regulator. Focus on really declining fatalities and serious injuries and particularly, I think we're ever-increasing focus on illness, which I think is a really important focus that we probably haven't had as much to do with over a good 10 year history, so it's really good to see that we are having a better focus in that space.

We've got some clear action areas, and I guess the one that really falls into this is about those high risk harm in terms of those injuries and illnesses. And it's also about us being an exemplar regulator, so for us, part of the work that we've been doing with the industry sector is really about getting buy in from everyone across the industry, and making sure that what we're doing is actually providing some benefit, but also that we're able to bring industry along with us.

Why are we focusing on silica? As part of the coming together of SafeWork, there was a lot of analysis done on the data and international and national research. From that, SafeWork came up with two specific chemicals that we're going to focus on, and one of them happened to be silica. So we've put that in our health and safety in terms of controlling that exposure, and that's across the board, not only in the construction sector, but across the board. I'm going to be talking about what we're going to do in the construction sector. And obviously, some of the biggest reasons why we're doing that is the amount of tunnelling that is going on across the state, but also the amount of work in sandstone and rock that's happening not only in tunnelling but also in residential and excavation work that's happening across the state.

This is a bit of just an understanding of our Hazardous Chemicals and Materials Exposures Strategy. A focus around a number of different types of activities that we will do, which is both doing that site type of activity, inspections, getting out there workplace visits, awareness, creating that awareness around illnesses and particularly in relation to silica, which I still think people don't have a great awareness of the effects and what those long term health effects are.

We're also doing a lot of research. We've also had our Work, Health and Safety Centre of Excellence initiated. We've got a number of data researchers who are working at both the international and national level in terms of improving our data in that space.

What is it that we really want to achieve through this program? Firstly, I think awareness is one of the big, big factors and still that lack of awareness is a real issue. We have the biggest construction boom that's ever happened in this state. We have workers working in these types of environments who have never been in that type of environment before. While we have some experienced people who have been, we've also got this whole range, a new group of people who are coming in who just don't have that awareness. So that's a big part of what we're trying to do.

It's also for us to understand it, and I think as an organisation for us, we never had a full understanding of what was actually happening underground. And probably as an organisation historically, we haven't really had a lot to do with it, apart from some of the major tunnel collapses and things that have happened in the past. We haven't on an ongoing nature actually been down in the tunnels. So for us, that was a big part of it, developing our own people in terms of understanding what's going on.

It's to work collaboratively with industry, and that's obviously a big part. If we don't get industries buying into the things that we're doing, we've already lost the caper. We have a lot of specialised and highly skilful people across the industry sectors who we need to work with, and we need to get on board in terms of making this change that will be long term. And hopefully, will be of benefit to the future generations.

We've conducted a number of site visits within the tunnels, and that's every major tunnelling project in the metropolitan region. And been doing assessments, hygiene assessments. We've been actually looking at the data and we've been looking at the work practices that are happening across those tunnelling contractors, and really been gathering that information on what is good practice, what do we expect that we should see down there, and what are some of the challenges or what are some of the areas where we think we can actually improve and make a difference in terms of reducing that silica exposure.

Again, continuing in collaborative discussions, and I think we've initiated an air quality monitoring group, which I'll talk about a little bit later, but I think that's been a really successful way to get all the major players together and actually just start these discussions about where we're at, and where as an industry do we want to get to. And I think, certainly from my point of view, it's been a really successful group to get together, and actually shows what people can do when they have the will to actually get together and start talking about some of these things.

I guess it’s always important to, when we are going about these things, it's important to look at the good things that are happening, and certainly in this industry sector, as opposed to a number of other different sectors, there are a lot of positive things happening in the silica space. I think as an industry sector, it's an opportunity for them to actually influence and provide positive, I guess futures, for other industry sectors where we can start making changes after the ones we've made in this industry.

Without going through all of them, some of the ventilation that we've seen is really good when it's put in place properly, and is really effective in terms of what you're trying to achieve. We have had use, and it's consistent and inconsistent at times, of misting systems, the use of brattice and curtains blocking off areas of the workspace and setting up the proper ventilation to get rid of these dusts, issues that prevent people having to get out of cabins. There was a lot of problems. You have positive pressure cabins, which is fantastic, but if you're opening a door, it takes away from the engineering control that you put in place. So in terms of that, it's been really good and there's certainly been some good compliance rates in certain areas down in the tunnels. So there has been some really positive things that have occurred.

But along with that, there's obviously also some challenges, and some of the challenges that we're trying to work through at the moment with the different joint ventures is, really what does that good practice look like? For us, as a regulator, we've been going down and doing visits to all these tunnels, and the practices across the tunnels are sometimes quite different. The challenge for us, and I think for the contractors themselves, is to say firstly, why are they different? And if they are different, are they providing the same level of safety that we would expect? So there are some of the things that we're really going to be working on over the next couple of months in terms of trying to achieve a better consistency.

In particular, that reducing the concentrations of silica dust, it is a challenge, and there are areas where it's just sometimes very difficult to achieve, but then there are other controls that you have to put in place if that is the case. The level of awareness we talked about, and I think across the board in this sort of environment, there's always been a really heavy reliance on PPE. I think wherever we can look at options in terms of those engineering controls and how we can actually control these things at the source, that's always going to be a much more positive benefit if we get to that space, rather than the lower order controls.

One of the things we're really proud of, is the air quality working group. I think that's been a really significant achievement in terms of getting a group of people who are often opposed in terms of the types of contracts that they have together, to actually come together and start talking, which I think has actually been a major achievement.

That committee is really about trying to say what are we about? This is not about getting anyone's technological advances or having an improvement in contract relationships. This is all about sharing information on the health and safety, and how we reduce the exposure to this type of dust. I think it was hard to start with, but now we're actually there, I think it's really showing some good results.

It's also about sharing the results of de-identified silica monitoring. The mines do it really well. They have a really mature dust committee that are very mature in the way that they share information, and I think if we could get to that space it would be a really positive environment and place to be. It's about sharing what good practices are. In terms of those inconsistencies, is this one better than this one, or is this one better than this one and why is that? Is it going to create extra cost or resource issues, or actually is that just the one we all should be using? I think those conversations can all be beneficial.

Also, obviously, getting feedback on the challenges that are faced by everyone. One of the things that we see constantly is that the challenges remain the same across the tunnels. And you're all facing the same challenges, so if you can come together and deal with it on a conglomerate basis, it's always going to be beneficial. Also, as a consultation mechanism for that guidance material, and trying to develop what does actually best practice look like in this field.

We've currently had three meetings. We've got two sub-committees that have been initiated. One is looking at health monitoring, and I think for all of us in the room, it's pretty clear that there's some real gaps in terms of the way different people are doing health monitoring, and in particular in terms of the way that people move across different work sites. How that health monitoring is effected is a real issue that we're actually trying to tackle, and again, come up with a consistent kind of approach to what that should look like.

There's also some work being done on this training package, which is really around what does a good induction look like, where should our people be in terms of that education space before they get into a tunnel, or one of these workplaces?

We've done some joint visits with hygienists, as I mentioned before, and that's across all the tunnels, to have a look at the results and to just see what's going on down there. We've also done a couple of visits to the mine rescue facility. It's interesting to see the different approaches from the mine sector to the tunnelling sector, and obviously there are differences in terms of the types of environment that are down there, but there's a lot of similarities as well. I think that's been a good thing for us.

Just to finish off, I'd like to say that it's been really great working with the industry. We've now got a number of meetings with all the joint venture partners where we're actually going to discuss what we can do now, in terms of some changes, and how we can reduce that silica exposure, with really basic things that can happen right now, and then what are we going to do in terms of being able to work with you in some of these more complex areas of exposures where we haven't quite got to what best practice or even what compliance might look like, for instance. So particularly, some of the back end works that are starting to happen. Benching, even some of the above ground works I think we're not quite there yet. Looking forward to the next couple of months and being able to get to a place where we're being able to deliver a bit more in terms of what compliance looks like.

Thank you.

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