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Safeguard Magazine

Health matters—Building healthy ideas

How to better tackle exposures harmful to health in the construction sector? DARREN LEWIS shares some ideas from overseas.

We kill ten times as many workers slowly as we do quickly. In New Zealand as in the rest of the world, long term health remains a much bigger issue for us than safety, but it’s taken decades to even begin to work out what we can do about it.

Finally things are starting to move. Here are some ideas from overseas on tackling occupational diseases in construction, with some comments on how they could apply here.


Engaging with the entire workforce to ensure risk awareness is critical. IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign’s sole aim is get carcinogenic exposures more widely understood by collaborating with businesses to raise awareness, while providing transparent guidance to improve its management. It is supported by 100 leading businesses and parliamentary groups.

This successful campaign is gaining momentum by providing free resources, while leveraging off social media and other avenues to deliver effective prevention programmes.

WorkSafe NZ has mobilised on this issue recently with its Clean Air programme. Adding a marketing campaign similar to IOSH’s would add urgency, in line with the UK message of No Time to Lose.


Through this scheme, teams establish and implement a written exposure control plan at each worksite for high-risk tasks. Tasks are identified that expose workers to materials such as fibre cement products; for each such task the controls to be used to protect workers are also detailed, including procedures to isolate and restrict access to work areas where high exposures may occur.

This could be included in WorkSafe NZ’s “Particular Hazardous Work Notification Form” and should form part of H&S management plans on all applicable worksites.


In the United States in September 2017 new regulations around silica exposures were enacted. A key element of this new legislation is around ongoing monitoring of individual health. Where the worker is required to wear respiratory protective equipment (RPE) for 30 days or more (where exposure to silica is over 50μg/m3), an employer must get documented medical checks carried out annually.

New Zealand could adopt this 30-day measure, which would create a benchmark for mandatory health reporting. This would tighten up our current guidance and improve surveillance.


In New Jersey, legislated notification to authorities is required from medical practitioners when people present with symptoms of occupational disease. This allows enforcement agencies to immediately review current and past work sites the worker has attended to prevent further disease onset to other workers.

Our Notifiable Occupational Disease (NODS) tool is still just voluntary, but GPs in New Zealand could be legally compelled to notify NODS if they believe health symptoms are workplace-related.


Under this initiative, face fit testing is a legal requirement for anyone who wears a tight-fitting mask. Respiratory protective equipment (RPE) must be fit-tested by a competent person or agency to ensure the worker has minimised their exposure to airborne contaminants.

The Health and Safety Executive – the UK’s regulator – developed an RPE fitting competency scheme called Fit2Fit to confirm the competency of any person performing face piece fit testing. The results of the fit test report can be examined by the HSE inspector if requested, and a competency card is held by the worker.

WorkSafe NZ provides similar guidelines to that of the UK, but a training card record of learning would be beneficial to provide evidence of the competence of fitters, and to build confidence about the RPE in use.


CAREX Canada is an exemplar on occupational disease surveillance, combining academic expertise and government resources to generate an evidence-based carcinogen surveillance programme for the country.

It identifies which carcinogens people are being exposed to, in what volumes, and where. It also calculates how many people are exposed, which informs the design of targeted prevention policy strategies.

New Zealand government agencies could partner with one or more universities here to do the same.


Construction activity is at unprecedented levels and the workforce understanding of occupational disease is very low. People coming in for the first time to the sector workforce need to be engaged and educated before taking their place on the worksite, and the existing cohort are not that much better informed.

It’s a huge task, but we need to start in earnest. From what we have seen working overseas, continual improvement of our prevention strategies will be the key to incrementally driving down the burden of cost we have allowed to develop.

Darren Lewis is a site manager with Downer Group. He recently completed a Master of Construction Management (with distinction) with AUT. This piece draws on research supervised by senior lecturer Dr Dave Moore carried out as part of that programme.

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