In Australia, environmental health and safety risk is getting critical. On the contemporary events broadcast, A Current Affair, respiratory physician, Dr Ryan Hoy singled out the silicosis crisis, calling it “unprecedented” – even warning that silicosis was worse than asbestosis.
And it’s not like asbestos risk has gone away, either. In one key respect, it’s gotten worse. So, it looks like everywhere you turn, environmental, health and safety risk keeps on rising. What can PCBUs (Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking) do?
Well, the first step is understanding the full extent of the issue. Experts have converged on a diagnosis. They say silicosis, a preventable disease resulting from chronic occupational exposure to silica dust, is back. It’s especially acute for stonemasons and other tradespeople.
This is a long cry from the positive momentum made in the mid-1990s. Back then, international organisations like the WHO (World Health Organisation) and ILO (International Labour Organisation) announced initiatives to eliminate silicosis by 2030.
Those projects launched to great fanfare. But it now appears that any initial progress has faded – if there was any at all. In fact, a 2015 study of South African gold miners actually found no decrease in the prevalence of silicosis from the mid-1980s onwards.
Nor have advanced economies like Australia been immune. Besides acute, accelerated, and chronic variants of silicosis, prolonged exposure to silica dust has been causing chronic bronchitis, emphysema, kidney damage, scleroderma, and lung cancer in the country.
The upshot: if PCBUs haven’t caught on yet, they must do so quickly or risk the consequences. Because for their part, regulators are acting and acting fast. After several cases of silicosis were reported in Queensland, Workplace Health and Safety Queensland issued some 500-plus compliance notices.
As PCBUs await state direction on the silicosis front, they can’t afford to turn their backs on other forms of environmental, health and safety risk. One mainstay is asbestos, especially in the construction industry.
Risk experts, in turn, have weighed in, noting that the asbestos contamination risk is more extensive than previously thought. Not only has asbestos created hazards within buildings and structures, contamination risk also extends to nearby soil.
The cost implications, here, have been enormous. Media reporting on just one new urban development project in Melbourne suggests that remediation to clean up chemicals, including asbestos, could cost as much as AUD 500 million.
What are the main takeaways for PCBUs? The changing risk climate means that PCBUs must process EHS data differently, so that they can make better-informed safety management decisions.
Employer investment in injury management systems and protocols seems to be adequate. The only problem is the overwhelming share of work-related mortality comes from work-related diseases not injuries. The precise number is near 90 percent.
Indeed, countries like Australia and New Zealand have a much higher work-related fatality burden from cancers and circulatory diseases (53 percent) than they do from accidents. And it’s the former that also accounts for the majority of safety costs.
How, then, can Safety teams retool their strategies, policies, and practices so as to reduce the physical and fiscal toll of workplace illness?
Better prioritization is an easy first step. Though injury and illness both have massive cost implications, the economic impact of work-related illnesses and diseases is orders of magnitude higher.
Safety teams must plan accordingly. Periodic incident health checks as part of pre-planned illness reduction programs can help, as can monitoring the status of known worker illness conditions, and tracking exposure hours for direct workers and contractors working with/near hazardous materials, like silica dust and asbestos.
When it comes to asbestos risk management, in particular, PCBUs must improve detection mechanisms, both for asbestos-containing materials and other contaminants. PCBUs must also have documented procedures in place in the event that asbestos is unexpectedly discovered. If they don’t, they risk costs and delays.
Finally, all of these aspects of environmental health and safety (plus, many more) should be managed in unified safety and security management technology. That way teams can better reduce risks, save time, make better informed decisions throughout the risk management life cycle, and respond to incidents more effectively. For further tips on efficiently managing safety risk, download our guide to hazardous material management.
The Lancet Respiratory Medicine: The world is failing on silicosis.
David Knight et al., BMC Public Health: Trends in silicosis prevalence and the healthy worker effect among gold miners in South Africa: a prevalence study with follow up of employment status.
Päivi Hämäläinen et al., Workplace Safety and Health Institute: Global Estimates of Occupational Accidents and Work-related Illnesses 2017.
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