Not all risks on a construction site are obvious. Some you can’t even see, such as toxic fumes and asbestos fibres in the air. But out of sight shouldn’t mean out of mind.
Hazardous substances can do just as much damage as a regular workplace accident. In fact they can do more. WorkSafe New Zealand estimates that 20 times as many construction workers die from breathing in airborne contaminants as they do from a workplace accident.
Think about that for a minute. Between 2008 and 2014 on average there were almost ten deaths a year from incidents in the construction sector, but work-related diseases claim around 200 lives a year from workers in the industry. We’re talking about cancers, respiratory disease and the like – diseases that cannot not only kill you but rob you of your quality of life along the way.
We need to get serious about workplace health risks. It’s time to treat health the same way we treat safety. We need to start identifying those harmful substances (such as asbestos, lead, solvents, paints and silica and concrete dust) and take action to ensure they don’t make us sick.
That’s where WorkSafe New Zealand’s Absolutely Essential Health and Safety Toolkit for Small Construction Sites can help. It’s a short, sharp starter course in the basics of health and safety. And it will point you in the direction of more detailed guidance and information if you need it as well.
The most well-known occupational health risk is probably asbestos. Asbestos related diseases can take decades to develop and there are well established rules for working with asbestos. This article is not the place to go in to detail, but the WorkSafe website has all the guidance you could need. Just remember – if in doubt check and test for the presence of asbestos and get expert advice from a qualified specialist (with a Certificate of Competence).
Preventing harm from hazardous substances is not just about having the right personal protective equipment for the job. That is important – and we’ll get to that. But before you start putting on your mask and gloves, or whatever, you’ll need to take the time to really think about the job and the best ways to eliminate or manage any health risks.
The Toolkit asks the sort of questions you should be asking yourself when you’re planning a project:
- Have you identified all harmful substances and materials?
- Have you put in place precautions to prevent or control exposure to hazardous substances?
- Can you do the work differently to remove the risk entirely?
- What about using a less hazardous material?
- Have you fitted dust extraction to your tools? Or water suppression to limit dust?
- Have you remembered to put up warning signs?
Dust might seem like just an annoyance, but it can cause real health problems – particular silica dust from cutting concrete. Preventing dust by wetting or extracting it with some sort of vacuum attachment is a far better option than just wearing a dust mask.
As always, proper training and information is also vital. If workers are expected to use or be around hazardous chemicals or other substances then they need to know what they’re dealing with and how to stay safe. Part of that training will be making sure everyone knows what personal protective equipment to wear and how to use it. It could be anything from the right dust mask or hearing protection to safety googles or gloves. For asbestos work your specialists may use disposable overalls and full respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to ensure they don’t breath in any fibres.
Make sure suitable equipment is provided and used – protective gear is no good if it is just lying in the back of the ute. In fact, leaving protective gear lying around in the ute is probably not the best idea full stop – make sure it is cared for and stored properly.
Last but not least, if anyone is exposed to hazardous substances such as lead, silica, cement or sensitisers such as two-pack adhesives or coatings) arrange ongoing health monitoring. Remember, many work-related diseases can take a long time to develop and are often the result of repeated exposure over years. It might be slow to catch up with you, but occupational ill health can have a devastating effect. Don’t take an chances – look out for hazardous substances and learn how to work with them safely.
There’s a lot more practical advice in the Absolutely Essential Health and Safety Toolkit for Small Construction Sites, which is available on WorkSafe New Zealand’s construction website. It does not cover legal requirements and is a guide only. There is also plenty more information at construction.worksafe.govt.nz.