Opinion

Air of danger surrounds building industry despite ban

By Murray Vitlich
June 19 2024 - 5:30am

Workers on a building site, whether it's a renovation or a large-scale commercial or residential project, already have one of the most challenging and labour-intensive jobs in the country.

They face tight deadlines, long days and potential risks of all kinds to their body, from the occasional mistimed hammer on the thumb to safety issues far worse.

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The last thing they should have to worry about is the impact that breathing the air around them on-site is going to have on their long-term health.

But that's what many workers are facing, adding additional risk to an already demanding gig.

Silica is a mineral commonly found in building materials like sand, stone, concrete and mortar, and is often used to make composite materials like engineered stone, gravel, brick and tile. When it's left within these building materials, silica is considered safe.

However, when materials containing silica are disturbed through actions like cutting, drilling and abrasive blasting, a fine and extremely hazardous dust is released. Known as silica dust, it's been dubbed the new asbestos by the media and many in the industry.

If silica dust is inhaled, it enters and remains in the lungs where it causes scarring and permanent tissue damage. Long-term silica dust exposure is proven to cause a range of serious medical conditions like emphysema, bronchitis and silicosis, lung cancer, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

In the past 18 months, stories emerged in the media of the impact silica dust exposure could have on the long-term health of construction workers.

This awareness campaign has driven remarkable change within the industry.

For example, we specialise in the hire of equipment at Coates, and since 2019 we've added 569 air cleaners and M&H class vacuum dust extractors to our fleet to help address the silica dust issue - we had none before then.

Over the past 18 months, when awareness of silicosis started to become national news, we saw hire of these dust mitigation products surge by 22 per cent.

Construction staff will need to remain vigilant even once new silica bans come into effect. Picture Shutterstock
Construction staff will need to remain vigilant even once new silica bans come into effect. Picture Shutterstock

Thankfully for many workers in the industry, in December last year, Australia became the first country in the world to nationally ban engineered stone following a surge in silicosis cases.

It's a progressive move from the government, putting health and safety in the construction industry first.

However, the ban doesn't come into effect until July 1 this year, which means that workers and businesses have continued to work with engineered stone - but they must do so in a controlled way.

This includes wearing respiratory protective equipment (RPE) if they're cutting, grinding, trimming, sanding, abrasive polishing or drilling engineered stone, plus using a water suppression (wet cutting) system, an on-tool dust extraction system, or a local exhaust ventilation system.

But even once the ban comes into effect, workers are still likely to be exposed to silica dust in some capacity, as it remains in building materials already installed.

It is therefore incumbent on all businesses in the construction industry to remain steadfast in protecting their staff from this scourge.

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We cannot rely on the ban to completely remove the issue. In the same way asbestos remains an issue decades after revelations of the health impacts of exposure, silica dust will remain an issue requiring our monitoring for decades to come.

Managers need to remain vigilant when they see staff without a mask on, or cutting stone without the right equipment.

They need to train up their staff - and themselves - on the impacts of silica dust and the scourge of silicosis so they can do their utmost to protect their long-term health.

The construction industry is the backbone of the nation, and its workers already face demanding jobs without having to worry about the negative health repercussions of undertaking something as necessary as breathing the air around them.

  • Murray Vitlich is chief executive officer of Coates.