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Crystalline Silica - Legislative Changes

The changes to the workplace exposure standard, the proposed update to the Occupational Health and Safety Regulations 2017, and the guidance from WorkSafe on acceptable levels of exposure to this hazardous material, will give many employers 'food for thought' on how they have been managing their worker's exposure to this hazardous substance and what they need to do in the future.

The Workplace Exposure Standard was reduced from 0.1mg/m3 to 0.05mg/m3. Furthermore, the Compliance Code Managing exposure to crystalline silica: Engineered stone 2020 sets a more stringent compliance requirement for employers as it states that exposure to respirable crystalline silica should be no more than 40% of the exposure standard.  The implication of the reduction in exposure levels is that for some organisations who previously had air monitoring that found exposure levels less than 0.1 mg/m3 but greater than 0.02 mg/m3 now need to review their processes and controls to ensure they comply with the requirements of the compliance code.

The recently issued proposed crystalline silica regulations apply a high-risk construction work like risk assessment process for employers and employees when working with products that contain crystalline silica. The definitions in the draft regulations includes the following.

Crystalline silica process, in summary, is any process that will form a dust that contains crystalline silica such as cutting, polishing, grinding or crushing, processing, screening, using, quarrying etc.

High risk crystalline silica work is work performed in connection with a crystalline silica process that is reasonably likely to result in

(a) an airborne concentration of respirable crystalline silica that exceeds half the exposure standard for respirable crystalline silica; or 

(b) a risk to the health of a person at the workplace.

Excluding the licensing requirements for engineered stone processes, the balance of the proposed regulations appear to a blend of lead, construction, and asbestos regulations in that they require:

  1.  Information provided to applicants about the health risks with exposure to crystalline silica and the need for, and details of, measures to control those risks.
  2.  When conducting a risk assessment, the following must be taken into account:
  • the specific tasks or processes required to be undertaken with material containing crystalline silica;
  • the form of crystalline silica to be used;
  • the proportion of crystalline silica contained in the material;
  • previous atmospheric monitoring results;
  • the likely frequency and duration of exposure to crystalline silica dust;
  • any information about incidents, illnesses or diseases associated with exposure to crystalline silica dust at the workplace.
  1.  A crystalline silica hazard control statement must be developed like a SWMS, or alternately, a SWMS that addresses the risk associated with the high-risk crystalline silica work in conjunction with high risk construction work will suffice.

The date for public submissions has passed, however, the timeline for review and development of the regulations is listed on the government website.

https://engage.vic.gov.au/proposed-silica-regulations-2021

To align with of the proposed regulations, employers in this space will need to review and revise their safety systems in consultation with employees and/or their representatives. They should verify what level of respirable crystalline silica their employees are potentially exposed to and assess whether their control measures provide appropriate protection. Finally, they will also have to develop training programs that outline the health risks associated with crystalline silica and describe the use of control measures for employees who are likely to be in environments where airborne crystalline silica is present.

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