Consigning poor health and safety practices to dust

1 May 2019 | By Will Mann

In a fast-changing industry, what impact will new technology and innovation have on health and safety practices? CM, in partnership with Hilti AND TRAVIS PERKINS, gathered a panel of industry experts to discuss dust and vibration risks – and ways to tackle them. By Will Mann.

Will Mann: What are the biggest health and safety challenges that construction faces today and where do dust and vibration figure in those concerns?

Catherine Gibson: One of the biggest issues our customers tell us about is consistency and clarity of message: how they get key health and safety information about issues such as dust, HAVS (hand-arm vibration syndrome) and noise control, in a helpful, consistent way, to site level and across all types of construction businesses.

Martin Coyd: There is a lot of uncertainty in the industry, and everybody wants the lowest possible price, and therefore nobody is prepared to invest – in the equipment and in the people. And it’s mainly about the people, for me. Because we don’t invest, and we don’t make enough time, it’s hard to plan the work properly. From a health and safety perspective, unless we can fix that in the first place it’s very difficult to move forward.

Steve Coppin: Procurement and design are critical. I’m setting the stall out here regarding selection of material and compliance products. I’m not saying particular designers don’t understand ventilation, but it’s often left to the contractor to sort it out because it’s not been thought about early on. Where clients have seen the benefits of engaging with the supplier, putting them alongside the main contractors, you see a real outcome.

Ed Hawksey: From the perspective of SMEs, a key issue is agency workers. They don’t understand what’s happening if controls are not put in place. That’s a focus we need as an industry – how to make those people aware of the risks.

Rico Wojtulewicz: I would echo that on SMEs. We need to bring best practice to the bottom of the industry – the
one-man bands and the small, growing companies – and make sure they are better educated and can achieve better outcomes.

The Panel

Standing, from left: John Saunders, principal ventilation scientist, HSE; Catherine Gibson, tool hire managing director, Travis Perkins; Steve Coppin, associate technical director, Arcadis; Martin Worthington, SHEQ director, Morgan Sindall; Martin Coyd, operations director, health safety and wellbeing, Mace; Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing and planning policy, NFB

Seated: Matias Järnefelt, head of Hilti Northern Europe, and general manager, Hilti Great Britain (left); Ed Hawksey, health and safety manager, Novus Property Solutions.

John Saunders: There are a host of health and safety issues and it’s difficult for SMEs to cope. I’m interested in airborne particles and control, and I know it’s often something that falls off their radar. The problem with a risk like dust is that it has a long latency – it doesn’t manifest itself immediately, like an injury would. It’s 10 or 20 years later.

Martin Worthington: With dust, my background is originally coal mining and I was a sub-ventilation dust engineer. Construction is still behind where the mining industry was, in terms of education and knowledge, 25 years ago.

Matias Järnefelt: Dust is an overlooked topic. There were 38 injuries leading to fatalities in the construction industry last year. But, according to the HSE, 450 people who have been exposed to silica dust in construction are passing away every year. Fatal accidents are very visible. We need to consider how we support healthy ways of working for somebody over years or decades.

WM: Where does dust sit in the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) priorities? Could it be considered as serious an issue as asbestos?

MW: I wouldn’t frame dust as being “the new asbestos”, but it is certainly a killer. It’s part of the HSE’s plan and we have received targeted visits, specifically around dust and HAVS. But I think that focus has started at the wrong end. It probably should have started at the other end, with respiratory protective equipment (RPE) being a last resort.

EH: There’s been a focus on testing and that seems to be the drive from a client perspective, which is a bit worrying. As Martin alluded to, we’ve gone to the end rather than looking at the design aspects and how we could have mitigated the risk at the start.

JS: Dust and asbestos are different health risks. However, silica has a very small exposure limit and links with cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is an important topic, and one that my team are researching, looking at the size of particles that come off when cutting, grinding and polishing both natural stone and artificial stone, and how this can affect the worker.

But I agree with the comments on RPE being the last line of defence; if you look at COSHH (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations), it starts with elimination first.

Clockwise from top left: Catherine Gibson (Travis Perkins); Martin Worthington (Morgan Sindall); John Saunders (HSE); Matias Järnefelt (Hilti); Rico Wojtulewicz (NFB); Martin Coyd (Mace)

CG: There is some confusion in our customer base about RPE. Some contractors already understand how to manage equipment specification through their supply chains. We support and guide smaller contractors who are sometimes less familiar with health and safety best practice.

MC: I do think most people are addressing dust because of HSE enforcement. The plethora of fees for intervention that are coming along are really a catalyst for action.

WM: How can director-level decisions about health and safety be filtered down to site level?

MC: At Mace, we have created a set of documents that are less wordy and more pictorial. We communicate our expectations to our supply chain beforehand. Through that early and simple communication, we can have confidence in them.

RW: Pictorial documents can inspire people to understand the topic. For our members, these would allow them to pass on information more readily, to their own workforce and subcontractors too.

EH: We’ve got to move away from this distinction between main contractor and subcontractors. In effect, if a subcontractor goes on to a Mace site or a Novus site or a Morgan Sindall site, they’re our people. We should treat them no differently than we would our own employees and educate our supply chain exactly as we would our own people.

SC: It’s also very important people from director level are visible on site. Asking workers: “How are you going to tackle this? What did you do last time? Is there another way you could try?” That can set the tone of a project. This dialogue with the workforce needs to happen, because they are on the ground doing the work, and we’re only as good as our weakest link.

WM: What are examples of good practice which make sites safer, and ultimately more productive, particularly around dust and HAVS?

MC: We have the Mace Business School where our supply chain is rewarded for participation. And that’s sharing best practice, rather than Mace telling people what to do. My experience is that most of the answers come from the person on the ground who has the tool in their hand.

“It’s about setting the standards at the start of the project and building them into the prelims rather than as an afterthought.”

Steve Coppin, Arcadis

We have to communicate that knowledge in multiple ways. And younger people communicate with electronic devices, so sending emails or having middle-aged men rabbiting at them is not the answer.

There’s also Build UK’s “black hat” common code for supervisors. If we all have similar practices with our supervisors, the experience should be similar whichever contractor’s site you’re on. It won’t be the same – we’re quite tribal. But we drive our workforce mad by having different hoops to jump through, from project to project. If we can be consistent, we will communicate more effectively at the point of work.

SC: It’s about setting the standards at the start of the project and building them into the prelims rather than as an afterthought. We also should enable people on the coalface to take responsibility and have a mechanism to filter problems, without a blame culture. It’s about trust and saying: “There’s an issue here, how can we solve it? Is there a better piece of kit we should be using?”

WM: What about product innovation?

MJ: We have the technology to remove dust at the source. There are dust removal systems that take away 99.8% of the dust as the cut is being made. That also drives productivity, because you no longer have to seal off areas. You don’t have to clean afterwards.

CG: We see our role, as part of the supply chain, to understand the innovation that’s coming from the manufacturers and then work with our customers to provide that to the market.

JS: Based on our lab tests, I think on-tool control – capturing the dust, gases, vapours at source – is the best control measure available. But some of the equipment is not well designed, even though nominally they’ve all got on-tool control. Once you’ve lost control of a dust cloud, the fine particles can be airborne for hours. If you’re in an enclosed space and you don’t get control, you can never regain control. You’re then relying on dilution and other measures.

MC: If we have to talk about control measures, we’ve already failed, because we’ve taken the decision to cut or drill and create dust. All big construction firms are now pushing offsite fabrication. It should improve quality and, in many cases, health and safety.

SC: As an industry, we need to be better at sharing best practice and new technology, rather than working in isolation. We should be prepared to trial new ideas and technology to see what improvements are possible, and not run away from these initiatives.

How can digital innovation help health and safety strategies?

SC: BIM can play a role by helping with planning and organisation. You can identify health and safety risks earlier and identify the equipment to use. But it’s also about other digital innovation. Simply using smartphones and tablets helps us capture information at site level more easily and younger people in the industry are comfortable doing that. But we have to educate the clients, who don’t have a grip on the technology, and persuade them that if they invest, they will see better outcomes from their supply chain.

“At Travis Perkins, we use digital technology to manage equipment availability and for testing and servicing, it supports us in being able to provide a service that our customers can trust.”

Catherine Gibson, Travis Perkins

CG: At Travis Perkins, we use digital technology to manage equipment availability and for testing and servicing, it supports us in being able to provide a service that our customers can trust. 

We are also looking at augmented and virtual reality solutions for in-branch training and customer equipment familiarisation. We want to use it to complement and enhance our existing methods rather than to replace them.

MJ: Hilti now has an app that uses what we call NFC chips. It’s basically the same technology you use for contactless payment. You touch the tool with a smartphone and it pops up with information about when the tool was bought, last repaired or calibrated, and links to a video on how to use the tool safely.

We have systems to track certifications and service status of tools across multiple sites, and provide reminders when they need to be updated.

Other innovations include advanced measuring tools, where you upload the plan and it points to where you have to fasten or drill.

We need to be realistic in terms of timeline. It may take several years to make a big difference on site, but we have 1,400 engineers developing these technologies.

MW: The technology brings massive benefits, but it brings different risks. We’ve been doing some work around fatigue, measured by wearable technology. But we’re conscious that we shouldn’t rely too much on the wearable technology – because it may mask any issues to do with design and planning at the front end. We need to be aware of the outputs we want from the technology.

JS: We’re also looking at wearable technology, and how to monitor fatigue, heart rates, stress. We’re also examining real-time dust monitors. However, you can’t keep measuring a problem and hope it will go away – you must act. But that nudge, when the operator sees their personal exposure in real time, has a place.

RW: It’s a nudge towards standard practice. When you can get a quick instructional video, as with the app Matias described, it is helpful for younger people who are very au fait with technology to quickly grasp the information.

What changes are needed in construction health and safety culture, particularly regarding management of dust and vibration?

MJ: Construction’s journey from a dusty, dirty, non-productive industry to a modern, safe and clean industry with advanced technology is going to take years. But it’s a journey that can be helped through convenience and proactivity on site, and better results for the businesses, rather than red tape and compliance.

CG: We are passionate about this [dust and vibration], providing our customers with solutions. Steps include investment in our fleet, partnering with suppliers like Hilti, and ensuring we are able to  provide guidance to customers.