Respirable dust management will form part of every health and safety inspection at New South Wales quarries for the foreseeable future, as inspectors caution operators against a reliance on personal protective equipment.
The NSW Resources Regulator’s chief inspector of mines Garvin Burns says the decision to intensify the focus on dust control measures comes in response to a three-week intervention program across the state that began in September.
Inspectors made unannounced visits to 24 quarries and issued non-compliance notices at every site. In total, seven prohibition notices were issued, resulting in parts of plant being shut down or prohibiting access to areas when plant was running.
More than 60 improvement notices were issued, as well as 10 notices of concern. Not all compliance notices were related to dust management.
Speaking to Quarry ahead of the release of a report into the findings, Burns said the intervention program was commenced after a review of dust monitoring results in May indicated some quarry workers were being exposed to dust at levels above legal limits.
Burns added it was not all bad news. Inspectors witnessed some good practice in terms of understanding the nature of hazards and the controls that had to be in place.
“Some did have good controls in place in terms of things like sprays and screens and hoods, and workers understood the importance of these being in place,” he said.
“Some quarries also reacted very quickly to the notices that were issued to them. In a very short period of time they had actually gone and implemented quite good dust controls, with regards to putting hoods on transfer points on conveyors, fitment of sprays, and conveyor transfers and sprays on stockpiles.”
He added: “But we also had operations where there were slack piles of dust under rollers and conveyors, float dust that was piled up a foot deep, and that dust is constantly getting disturbed when workers walk through those areas.”
Over-reliance on PPE?
Burns said a key focus of the inspections was ensuring quarries did not have a singular reliance on personal protective equipment (PPE) as a risk control for respirable dust.
He said inspectors were disappointed to discover a belief among some operators that employees could work in heightened dust conditions if they were wearing PPE.
“There’s a multi-tier approach required to managing dust,” Burns said. “First, you manage or eliminate it at its source if you can. If you can’t, then you suppress it. And if you can’t eliminate or suppress it, then you keep people out of it.”
Burns said Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia (CCAA) had developed “extremely good” guidelines specifically for the management of crystalline silica dust.
“If quarry operators were to pick up that guideline and read it properly and implement some of the recommendations in there, they would be a much better place … it is concerning that the level of understanding and the level of knowledge is hit and miss.”
The IQA will be releasing a number of education and resources for hazard and risk identification, effective risk management, and worker health education in early 2020.
IQA President Shane Braddy said the IQA was working closely with industry to ensure quarries and workers have access to resources that will support them to meet their obligations and minimise risk of exposure.
“Quarries need to understand the hierarchy of controls and ensure workers are protected,” he said. “The IQA is building on the guidelines available in industry and will be conducting very specific training in 2020.”
Looking ahead, Burns said the Resources Regulator would continue to educate managers and quarry workers to better understand their obligations and the risks. This will include road shows it held across the state and revision of the regulator’s own guidance material.
He also said inspectors would conduct follow-up visits to affected sites and make dust management a priority going forward.
“I think our process for the next 12 to 18 months will be that no matter what principal hazard we go to assess at quarries, as part of that inspection we will look at how they are managing respirable dust,” Burns said.
“There will be an escalated level of intensity in terms of our focus on dust in the foreseeable future in the extractives sector and that’s going to apply beyond the extractives. That will also apply to the metalliferous and surface coal mining space as well.”
More clarity needed
Some industry figures have told Quarry a disconnect may exist between the regulator and some quarry operators on workplace exposure standards due to a lack of clarity on the issue.
Central to this is the regulator’s view that the workplace exposure limit for silica dust cannot exceed 0.1mg/m3 within the breathing zone. If exceeded, then workers cannot legally work in those conditions at all, even if PPE is being worn.
In recent times, the Resources Regulator has also supported SafeWork Australia’s recommendation to reduce the Australian Workplace Exposure Standard for respirable crystalline silica from 0.1mg/m3 to 0.05mg/m3.
CCAA CEO Ken Slattery said, as a matter of policy, the organisation had always engaged closely with regulators in NSW and around the country on issues that impact the industry, including the management of dust.
“We are committed to supporting our members achieve the highest possible workplace and environmental standards,” he added. “CCAA will be releasing enhanced guidance reflecting new workplace requirements in coming weeks.”