The laws, rules and regulations pertaining to Australian workplaces keep changing every now and then. These are done keeping in mind the overall health, safety and well-being of the employees and other stakeholders. At the same time, the rules and laws are often framed and modified from time to time in such a way that there is the right balance between the well-being of the workers and also ensuring the efficacy and productivity of factories and manufacturing units. Hence, in most cases, the answer to the question IS YOUR WORKPLACE SAFE AND COMPLIANT has always been positive.
However, there have been some changes to the WES or Workplace Exposure Standard rules and regulation that is giving rise to many debates regarding the utility or otherwise of these changes. On the one side, workers are quite happy about the changes, many industry experts and entrepreneurs are a worried lot. They believe that the changes could lead to problems and the stringent norms would be tough to implement. They also feel that it could lead to reduced productivity and may open up many factories to health inspectors and this also could lead to over decline in businesses across the board. Where exactly does the truth lie? Is this a positive or negative step? Let us try and find answers to the questions over the next few lines. We hope it may help the readers and other stakeholders to have a better perspective about the new rules.
WHAT DOES THE NEW LAW SAY?
Let us have a brief look at the WES norms as far as silica dust is concerned. The respirable crystalline silica that is allowed in workplaces has been reduced to half. Hence, for all those factories and manufacturing units that work with various materials such as tiles or concrete or engineered stone, the levels of permissible respirable crystalline silica has been reduced by 50%.
This would mean additional control measures in the workplaces as mentioned above. The law also has also put the onus on manufacturers to understand the implications of this change. They also have been instructed to effectively assess and then manage the various risks of health problems associated with such silica dust in the above workplaces. The WES has halved the eight-hour weighted average of silica dust exposure from 0.1 mg per meter cube to 0.05 mg per meter cube. The new changes have come into effect from July 1, 2020 in most jurisdictions. According to WES this has been done keeping in mind the safety of workers and ensures that they are kept away from the ill-effects of silica dust. It would also be pertinent to mention that the new law has been translated in six different languages so that it is understood better.
HOW DOES IT IMPACT MANUFACTURING UNITS?
There is no doubt that a number of manufacturing units will be impacted by the new rules and regulations announced by WES. It will particularly impact engineered stone manufacturing units because the silica content in these units is more than 90%. Other manufacturing units that contribute to silica exposure are natural sandstone, shale and granite units. The manufacturing units mentioned above use many processes for converting raw materials into finished products. Silica pollution takes place during mining and tunnelling, and also when the manufacturing and construction work is taking place. Many waste products also lead to silica poisoning and the same is the case when the materials are being transported to the workplace.
Hence, all the above should be kept in mind while drawing up new manufacturing methods and approaches. Workers also have a role to play because the above manufacturing units are the ones that provide employment to thousands of workers. Hence, the onus lies both on the manufacturers and workers to reach a mid-point so that it becomes a win-win situation for both of them. Here are a few things that could be put in place keeping in mind the changed circumstances in view of the new rules that have been put in place by WES.
REGULAR COMMUNICATION WITH WORKERS IS THE FIRST STEP FORWARD
As entrepreneurs and manufacturers, you must not shy away from the need to regularly communicate with your workers and their elected representative. You should educate them about the changes to the WES rules and how the rules can be implemented without damaging the backbone of the manufacturing unit. While workers safety and adherence to the new rules is a must, equally important is the long term viability of the various manufacturing units. Here are a few things that could perhaps help in arriving at a middle road that will satisfy and meet the requirements of all the stakeholders.
* Come out with a silica dust control plan, taking the new realities and laws into account.
* Identify and then try to mitigate the health risks because of silica dust exposure.
* Sit with the workers and come out with changes to procedures and processes. This could help in reducing the quantum of silica dust that is generated.
* Put in place the right controls and also provide the workers with the right safety apparatuses and protective gears that could help them to thwart the risks arising out of silica dust exposure.
* Also have a regular health check-up mechanism in place for the workers. The workers should be mandatorily asked to go through such check-ups so that any danger arising from over-exposure can be identified early and the risks can also be nipped in the bud.
* Take the help of health experts and others to put in place various safety rules and regulations that could help minimize the risk of silica exposure.
* Invest more in health facilities so that the workers feel comfortable.
* Provide regular training and keep the workers informed about putting in place new manufacturing processes and methods in view of the changed situations.
We have to understand the fact that this is process and it will take some time before things settle down. Yes, changing the silica exposure norms and bringing it down by 50% is indeed a big challenge. It may cause some temporary production and manufacturing bottlenecks.
However, once the full impact is known to the manufacturers, they can sit down with their workers and come out with the right solutions that address the concerns of all concerned. As mentioned above, while workers’ safety and health cannot be compromised, the short, medium and long-term viability of these manufacturing units cannot also be jeopardised. At the end of the day, they provide employment and livelihood to thousands of workers who are directly or indirectly attached to the manufacturing processes as mentioned above.