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.

Using specific examples from his experience working with Sydney Metro, Kurt Warren discusses how they applied systems and resources to tackle the issue of illness prevention in rail and infrastructure and across other divisions such as the building sector.

Who is this seminar for?

This seminar is useful for PCBUs and WHS consultants or advisors in the construction and infrastructure sector.

Recommended viewing

Representatives from the same Sydney Metro project discuss their proactive measures to address silica dust in Staying ahead of the game – Controlling silica exposure in tunnel construction and The role of the client in the WHS landscape.

About the presenter

Kurt Warren is the Head of Health Safety and Environment, Southern Region with Laing O’Rourke.

Additional resources


Silica series: Shifting perceptions and outcomes in occupational health & wellbeing

Presenter: Kurt Warren, Head of HSE – Southern Region, Laing O’Rourke

Virtual Seminar Series - Transcript

As far as Laing O’Rourke are concerned, we've got very much an ethos within our organisation to be an industry leader. And that means being disruptive, it means being innovative and being brave, coming to the forefront for the conversation, and participating in it. Not just sitting back and waiting to comply from the regulator. Not waiting for our clients to set the tidemark of what expectations we should meet from a minimum standard. But to take the lead and challenge the construction industry where it probably hasn't been all that much challenged in its infancy.

We're still building very much the same ways we've built for a hundred years. Yes there's technology and there's things in place. But in essence, we're still using men and women with machines with raw materials. And how we actually do that, and how we can change and challenge that practice is how we're going to get better health, well-being and safety outcomes.

I wanted to share a little bit about Laing O’Rourke's safety story. We've, probably since about 2011, been on a journey of how we look at safety differently. And we've had huge success, and in essence, there's some key principles of how we've operated in that space.

One being people are the solution. Not people are the problem to be controlled. Health and safety is the presence of positives. Not the absence of negatives. And health and safety is an ethical responsibility, not a bureaucratic activity. 

When we talk about health, when we talk about well-being, we're not going to necessarily be able to rely on our same process and keep repeating, and expect that we're going to get a different outcome.

It is much more complex, it is much more holistic, when we start talking about well-being, health, and the occupational health and the lives of the individuals that work in our industry. It is not just a physical safety, and we hear the catchphrase, "Go home the same way you came to work." You're not going to get that chance to live that, know that, in years to come from the likes of exposure to silica.

I wanted to just talk about some stories. And this is one of our key streams of our business in the infrastructure space. We're currently doing a lot of infrastructure work. We've probably moved from an organisation that was centric to the oil and gas sector self-delivery, to now infrastructure work in a very short period of time, with a subcontract workforce. That can be tier 2, 3, 4 and so on. The amount of work that we have in New South Wales at the moment is meaning that we've got new people coming into our industry, not necessarily accustomed to the ways of how we're doing it, and spans of control as we would have been accustomed to through direct delivery workforce. Completely different.

And the types of conversations you have now with a subcontract workforce, that when we talk about that obligation, that ethical responsibility, we're having people come onto our projects that are only going to exist for a very short period of time. Why would you invest in programs, initiatives, controls, for a worker that's not my direct responsibility, who will only be in my backyard for a very short period of time. That is something commercially that a lot of organisations would be grappling with.

When we talk about ethical responsibility, this is a wake-up call, this is where you'll, I suppose, pick the leaders and pick the followers. The ones that are going to have to be overseen by the regulator to ensure that the minimum compliance is in place, and then the organisations that are going to actually drive and change and influence others.

We, a bit over a year ago, started a project called Sydney Yard Access Bridge or SYAB, as it's called, which is enabling works for Central Station, we’re building a large bridge over into the middle of Central Station yard.

When we first started looking at this tender, I remembered sitting in head office in north Sydney talking to the team about the PC standard, really thick document full of great things. And to the uninitiated looking at it, it seems quite onerous. In reality, it still is quite onerous.

When we looked at the scale of that project, which was a $20 million project with billion dollar expectations against that PC standard.

I think our organisation and for new people looking at it thought surely, surely they couldn't expect us to meet these standards. It's a $20 million project.

And we went into SYAB knowing that we want to learn. We want to learn a lot from this process, we can see the pipeline of work that's coming, and this is an opportunity to do that on the right scale.

I can tell you we've learnt a lot. We learnt a lot about what sits within that PC standard, how to implement it, how to have the conversation with our subcontract workforce.

And it's been a challenge. But I can tell you that the conviction that we've held against it means that we've delivered. And we've delivered safely, and on time, maybe not budget, but it was the right scale project to do it on.

Moving now into Central Station, which we've just started on, delivering a billion dollar project for Sydney Metro, we'll take those lessons, those new practices and those insights into what will be a very challenging and obviously a very rewarding project for everyone that's involved.

One of the big things for me going through this was talking about what is occupational hygiene to a industry, to a workforce, that really have very little insight into what it is.

I reflect on my own time when I first started my career at ANSTO, the nuclear reactor out at Lucas Heights. And I did 12 months as a hygienist, and I remember going home and talking to my family, to my friends, that I'm going to be working as an occupational hygienist. And they thought I was going to be cleaning toilets or working after ... cleaning something. The penny really didn't drop. The knowledge of what it was, was not there.

And to a large extent, we're still in that space. We don't know what it is, we don't understand the detail of it. We look to people like Kate and others who are occupational hygienists, I now have a standard that's calling on a certified occupational hygienist to have governance and oversight and input into the controls and systems of work of how we're going to work around this particular hazard. And we have to raise the awareness associated with it.

Laing O’Rourke took a view that we could, as per the PC standard, engage a consultant, a COH, to come in and give us that advice, and we'd be delivering against the clients expectation.

We challenged that internally, from a senior level within the business, and felt that there's an opportunity here for us to organically create some capability around hygiene.

Which takes me into our building sector, second major part of our business. But the building industry is very different to the infrastructure business. The types of conversations that I have with frontline contractors, around some of the practices and behaviours around excavation, around dust control, I get looks back at me like I've got two heads.

And I can go from one extreme to the other from into the infrastructures space where I've got a client who has a high level of expectation. There's industry expertise and resource there, and us wanting to meet that and exceed it.

But the building sector is a high risk sector as well. It doesn't necessarily mean we're in tunnels, but we're still digging in the sandstone, we still have workers at point of exposure, and the behaviours and practices over many many decades for how they do their work.

So, for us I want to use this opportunity through Sydney Metro, not only in our infrastructure projects, with our COH coming on board, but also use it in our other sectors we have business, which have very little governance or I suppose regulatory input. I don't have the likes of Safework crawling all over my construction site where I'm excavating in an open area into sandstone. That expectation is not there.

But your maturity, your level of leadership as an organisation should bring you front and centre with it. And we should be sharing what we do with infrastructure across building as well.

Laing O’Rourke this year have endorsed our first health and well-being strategy. We've had previous initiatives and programs that have run out but have not been targeted. Now we have, based on the success of our Next Gear program, the three principles. We've jumped on the coattails of that, and have expanded it into a more holistic health and well-being perspective.

This also allows us to look at things like silica exposure, around occupational health and illness, and broaden that success.

So, we're going to be operating off a framework. It's five key points. It's evidence based. We've got a lot of research out of the UK at the bottom of the slide there, you can see the reference.

The first one Keeping in touch - being connected. Keep on playing - being active. Keep on listening - taking notice. Keep on learning. Finally, Keep on sharing – and giving.

One of the activities that we did in the lead-up to this was undertook a survey. And you hear people say, "Oh survey," feel nervous about that. It's a bit of an academic process that people don't really participate in. But with one of our partners in this program, we undertook this survey around health and well-being, and asked people a lot of personal questions, where they had the opportunity to opt in themselves online.

And we were inundated by the response rate.

So, we know we have captive audience within our workforce that are concerned, they're thinking about their health. They want to know more information, and they want to share that with us as an organisation.

One of the huge insights that we got out of this was that our organisation had off the Richter scale results for cholesterol. And be that as it may, I suppose that the point I want to make is when we're talking about health and well-being, we have the danger of doing gestures of health and well-being, stop smoking campaigns, the like, whatever it may be.

But when are we going to look at evidence based facts of what the health is of our workforce, so that we can use the resources that we do have, for targeted campaigns, and measure the effectiveness.

This is not a moral high ground. We're not wanting to make a public statement or gesture. We know if we have a healthy workforce, we've got a healthy business.

So looking at it factually, getting the input from our workforce, them being part of the solution, and allowing them to opt in and be a part of what they are going to do around their health.

We could look at this form a silica perspective and say, "We'll come over the top from a regulatory perspective. I’ll create a system, a report, a governance structure, and we'll ensure that people do as we need them to do.”

Or, we can create awareness of it, we can talk about what the actual health impacts are at the moment and what the risks are that they potentially face. And what choices they can make in real time when they go to work. It's a two-way street.

We want healthier cultures, we want healthier places, we want healthier minds, and healthier bodies of our whole entire workforce.

So, Sydney Metro as I've mentioned, one of our key clients who've set a new bar, I commend them for it. It's great to see, I suppose, the initiative of a client that wants over and above the minimum standard, as we have had in the safety space for a number of years now.

In that partnership and broadening our scope more broadly outside of infrastructure and the health sector, our take on things is this is how we believe everyone will return home safely, for not only today but throughout their working life and beyond.

I think that's really important message to take home.

We don't want people just to go home safely today. That responsibility, that due diligence, that moral ethical responsibility, will extend way past that subcontractor that's going to be on our project for one month or two months.

But that time that they're with us has the ability to influence them for the rest of their lives.

You have a choice to hide from that reality, not let that reality catch up with you in 10 or 20, 30 years as an organisation, because it's so hard to pinpoint the actual timeline point of that exposure.

Or make the choice to do something in partnership with the types of people that we want to do business with.

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