A Bunnings Health & Safety Update
It’s a shocking fact but if you are a construction worker you are 20 times more likely to die from a work-related health problem than a work accident or injury. Which is why the health & safety sector is focusing on this critical area in 2018. Nikki Mandow looks at the dangers and some initiatives designed to keep you healthy at work.
In mid-2017 Jon Harper-Slade, the new head of the Construction Safety Council, was having renovation work done. He arrived home to discover his builder cutting concrete, sheathed in a cloud of dust - with not a dust suppression device in sight. When Jon rushed out to protest, he learned his builder (an experienced professional) had no idea the dust floating all around him was putting him at serious risk of the long-term lung disease silicosis. Nor did he know he was also potentially endangering the people around him.
Tragically, Jon says, the fact he’d been working without dust protection his whole life meant his lungs were likely already damaged.Risky scenarios like the one at Jon’s own house are repeated every day on hundreds of building sites across the country.
Silicosis and other lung diseases caused by exposure to dust (asbestosis is another common one) are chronic and incurable. You probably won’t know you have them until years or even decades after you first inhaled the dust that caused them. But eventually the inflammation and scarring of the lungs will make it hard to breathe and make you more susceptible to lung cancer and tuberculosis.
Craig Sengelow, who leads WorkSafe’s construction sector engagement, says clean air will continue to be a key focus in 2018, with particular emphasis on the health risks associated with silica dust, solvents, welding fumes, wood dust and carbon monoxide.
In the construction sector, exposure to respirable dust and silica is a significant factor in deaths and illness. A 2015 WorkSafe study, together with international data, suggests urgent action is needed.
“Across all sectors in New Zealand, an estimated 600-900 people die of work-related diseases each year. Another 30,000 or so people develop serious work-related ill-health, such as noise-induced hearing loss or lung diseases. Many more cases are likely to be unreported or are not linked back to a person’s work,” says Craig.
“Safety gets the majority of the attention because it’s the acute part of health and safety. It’s in your face. But for every construction worker killed in an accident each year, WorkSafe estimates 20 die from long-term health problems. It’s like a slow accident because the effects of silicosis, for example, might take 10-15 years to manifest. And unlike many non-fatal injuries, these diseases are not reversible. If you break your arm, it can mend. Silicosis, asbestosis, even something like long-term hearing damage, you can’t repair them. Which is why it’s so crucial we take action in our industry now.
Over the next few months, ConstructSafe will release a series of health and safety competence tests designed to identify gaps in construction workers’, supervisors’ and managers’ health and safety knowledge and understanding, including new tests for different trades - scaffolders and electricians are first up. It will also be running a series of regional roadshows in early 2018, with free tools and advice, and people to talk to.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity to bring the industry together to set common standards for competence,” Jon says. “In particular, I believe the single biggest shift change we can make will be investing in the H&S capacity of our site supervisors - our coalface leaders. This will be a massive challenge for them, but they can make a massive difference.”
Four critical health hazards and tips to mitigate the risks on a construction site
1. Asbestos dust:
Breathing in dust from asbestos-containing materials which are disturbed (for example during demolition or renovations) or are breaking down (when they are old and damaged) can cause acute lung problems, cancer, or the lung disease asbestosis. Asbestos kills more people in New Zealand than any other work-related illness - 170 a year across all sectors. Tip: Legally, you need a specific asbestos licence to carry out risky work with asbestos-containing materials. WorkSafe manages the licensing scheme.
2. Silica dust:
Silicon is the second most commonly-found element in the earth’s crust, after oxygen. Over 90% of the crust is composed of materials containing silicon - silica, for example, which occurs in (among other things) sand, rocks and clay. The trouble is that silica dust can be toxic, causing lung damage and disease. Silicosis can be acute (from exposure to high levels) or chronic (lower levels of exposure for many years). Dangerous work includes cutting, grinding, drilling or otherwise machining or tooling construction materials including sand, concrete, masonry, rock, soil and landscaping materials. Approximately 75% of trades workers report being exposed to dust at work. WorkSafe’s Craig Sengelow says silica dust is one of the biggest risks in the construction sector. Meanwhile, exposing your skin to concrete and other chemical dust can cause dermatitis, cracked skin or skin ulcers. Tip: Use correctly-fitted respiratory protection, water hoses and dust collection systems on equipment to keep dust out of your lungs. To protect your hands, wear gloves, or apply a barrier cream before starting work.
3. Noise exposure:
There are two key elements with noise in construction - general accumulated noise (from a machine or drill, for example) and instant high-intensity noise (dropping a piece of steel scaffold onto another one). Both can cause hearing damage or loss, but both are entirely preventable. WorkSafe estimates noise-induced hearing loss accounts for up to a quarter of all hearing loss – 60,000-100,000 people in New Zealand. And around 80% of those are male, including many construction workers. WorkSafe will release guidance and tools on how to manage health risks from noise exposure in the new year. Tip: Think about whether you can buy quieter tools or isolate noise to reduce the number of people exposed to it. Don’t just wear ear protection yourself, make sure others working nearby are wearing it too.
4. Vibration hazard:
Prolonged exposure to vibration from construction power tools (saws, grinders or hammer-action tools, for example) can cause problems such as hand-arm vibration syndrome and vibration white finger, which causes loss of feeling and sometimes permanent numbness in the fingers. Meanwhile a major cause of whole body vibration (WBV), which causes fatigue, insomnia, headaches and shakiness, or even long term issues with the nervous, cardiovascular and digestive systems, is vehicle seats, particularly in heavy machinery.
Tip: Keep tools and vehicle seats well-maintained to reduce vibration levels. Loose or worn parts create extra vibration, and having blunt, damaged or inefficient tools increases vibration and also means tasks take longer, increasing exposure levels.
Where to find information
There’s lots of helpful information out there. Start with these:
- Simple dust safety tips from Site Safe
- WorkSafe has plenty of useful material on dust, including information on critical health risks, a silica dust in construction fact sheet, including employers’ responsibilities and dust control methods, other clean air fact sheets, a respiratory protection guide (explains common respiratory hazards for which protection is required, and gives guidance on using respirators), and a guide on controlling construction dust with on-tool extraction
- Video and other information on dangers with asbestos (Asbestos Aware)
- Noise in construction fact sheet
- Information on vibration include this from WorkSafe, and another from the UK’s HSE
- On-site risk management planning: The Canterbury Rebuild Safety Charter has a series of guides, including information about managing risks from dust, asbestos, silica and noise.