Workplace programme tackling airborne contaminants shifts into next phase
WorkSafe has launched a campaign to raise awareness of risks from welding fumes, wood dust and carbon monoxide in the manufacturing and construction sectors. The programme, which forms part of the Healthy Work strategic plan for work-related health, broadens WorkSafe’s focus on workplace airborne contaminants which initially started with silica and organic solvents.
Every year, an estimated 600-900 people die in New Zealand from work-related health issues and a further 5,000-6,000 are hospitalised with cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other chronic illnesses from workplace exposure to airborne contaminants.
“There are multiple diseases associated with wood dust and welding fumes, including cancers, asthma and chronic lung conditions, while carbon monoxide can be a potentially deadly poisonous gas,” says Marcus Nalter, Programme Manager for Manufacturing and Construction at WorkSafe.
“The effects of exposure may not be visible for days, weeks, months or even decades. But workers in the construction sector are 20 times more likely to die of exposure to harmful airborne substances than from a workplace incident, and that rises to 25 times more likely for manufacturing workers.”
During 2015 and 2016, WorkSafe did nearly 1,000 proactive inspections focused on welding fumes and wood dust. In 150 of these, inspectors found risks weren’t being managed and enforcement action was required. “We will continue to educate and support employers and employees to recognise and manage these risks, and will take enforcement action where necessary to protect workers’ health,” says Mr Nalter.
“Employers have an obligation under the Health and Safety at Work Act not just to keep workers safe, but healthy too.”
Looking after workers’ health also has significant productivity benefits for businesses. Research has shown that one in 10 lost working days in New Zealand is due to ill health caused by work. The average cost of lost productivity is estimated to be $44,500 per case.
There are some good examples of employers taking health risks seriously. Placemakers Frame & Truss in Auckland has always monitored and managed air quality and already had a large extraction system. But in 2012, after legal limits for airborne dust were reduced, one area of the factory was exceeding limits. The business worked with a specialist ventilation engineer to develop a solution – building plywood booths around dropsaws to enable more efficient sawdust extraction.
“The booths were cheap to make, simple and effective, and they don’t restrict us in any way,” says Laurie Smith, Northern Manager for Placemakers Frame & Truss. “Workers helped design, build and test the solution and they were very happy to be part of the process. We worked together to create the best possible working environment.”
Mark Taylor, Naylor Love Construction’s Regional Health and Safety Manager for Canterbury, says the increased awareness of airborne contaminants is paying off. “The guys are working out that it is a lot nicer working with their saw or grinder plugged into a vacuum – and it’s cleaner,” says Mr Taylor. “They are more aware that ‘dust is dangerous’.”