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How to complete a SWMS when using silica

This resource details how to prepare and complete a SWMS for controlling risk to health and safety when working materials that contain crystalline silica.

This information relates only to the hazards and risks of exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS).  It does not deal with other hazards and risks that may be present in the work’ or other ‘high risk construction work’

Crystalline Silica is present in a variety of construction products, including engineered stone, concrete, tiles, bricks and mortar. When these products are cut, ground, or polished, airborne dust containing RCS can be generated which people may breathe-in, causing serious illness.

What is a SWMS?

A safe work method statement (SWMS) is a safety planning tool that identifies the hazards and risks of ‘high risk construction work’ (HRCW) and describes the control measures necessary to manage those risks. Its primary purpose is to help workers and supervisors to implement and monitor the control measures established to ensure the work is carried out safely.

Workplace health and safety laws require PCBUs, including employers and self-employed persons to prepare SWMS before commencing HRCW.  HRCW includes working in an area that may have a contaminated atmosphere. This may include air that is contaminated with RCS.

How do I go about preparing a SWMS for activities involving crystalline silica?

The SWMS needs to describe in clear terms how risks arising from work with products or materials that generate RCS will be controlled to enable the work to be done safely, and how the control measures are to be implemented.

A typical approach to developing a SWMS involves the following:

Gather all relevant information about the materials or products

Obtain and review the safety data sheets from the manufacturer or supplier for the materials/products to be used. This should enable you to identify whether they contain crystalline silica and the safety measures recommended by the manufacturer or supplier. If uncertain, assume the material contains crystalline silica.

Obtain and review any specific work health and safety requirements that apply in your State or Territory. For example, dry cutting of engineered stone with a power tools is restricted and has specific requirements for controlling the release of dust. These requirements are in the workplace health and safety laws, codes of practice or guidance material available in the website of your local workplace health and safety regulator.

Find out the tasks and processes that may generate RCS

Review the proposed works and information in the safety data sheet. Consider the tasks and processes that may involve working with materials that contain crystalline silica.  In residential construction, tasks and processes may include:

  • Work on engineered stone during benchtop manufacture and on site installation
  • Cutting bricks, blocks, pavers, stone, fibro-cement, Hebel, concrete
  • Mixing sand and cement
  • Tuck-pointing
  • Mortar and joint cleaning when dry
  • Making penetrations through bricks, blocks, concrete, fibro cement
  • Chasing concrete and brick walls and floors
  • Drilling concrete, bricks, stone, pavers
  • Roof tile cutting and pointing
  • Wall and floor tile cutting and shaping
  • Tile grouting and wiping dry grout
  • Sweeping or vacuuming concrete surfaces
  • Scabbling concrete
  • Jack hammering concrete and rocks
  • Surface polishing, grinding and finishing concrete surfaces
  • Precast panel patching, polishing and finishing
  • Cleaning dust and debris eternally
  • Cleaning of mortar and concrete droppings from scaffolds and trestles
  • Dismantling scaffolds
  • Shotcrete and concrete spraying
  • Landscaping
  • Trenching, excavations, gravel placement
  • Concrete foundations and removal of formwork
  • Demolition
  • Decontaminating clothing and PPE
  • Emptying dust capture bags, containers, vacuum cleaners
  • HEPA filter replacement
  • Disposing of contaminated waste

Consult with the relevant workers

In consultation with the workers that will undertake the HRCW, their supervisors and health and safety representatives (if any) review the safety data sheets, local health and safety requirements, and the proposed work.

Consider the views of workers about the hazards, the potential risk control measures and any site-specific matters that may impact the safety of the work.  If there are other workers that could be impacted by the work and be exposed to RCS they must also be consulted.

Note: There is a legal obligation to consult affected workers and their health and safety representatives when identifying hazards or measures to control risk, and to take their views into account.

Select the most appropriate control measures to eliminate or reduce risks

To select the most appropriate control measures you must apply the ‘hierarchy of control as detailed in steps 1 to 5 below.

HIA’s information sheet The Hierarchy of Control explains how the hierarchy of control applies more broadly to the requirements for managing workplace hazards and risks.

  1. First, you must seek to eliminate risks so far as is reasonably practicable (e.g., using materials that do not contain silica).
  2. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate risks, you must implement any specific control measures required by law in your State or Territory.  Most jurisdictions prescribe mandatory control measures for managing risks of working with engineered stone.  Typically, these are dust suppression methods that use on-tool water suppression or on tool-dust extraction to prevent exposure of workers to RCS.
  3. For work involving other materials or products,  risk must be reduced so far as is reasonably practicable by implementing one, or a combination of the following:
    • Substituting a process or substance with one that is less hazardous. For example, wet sweeping instead of dry sweeping, using a material with a lower crystalline silica content, such as natural stone, 
    • Isolating workers and other persons from the hazard.  For example by installing barriers between workers generating dust and others nearby. 
    • Using engineering controls.  For example, on-tool water suppression, on-tool dust extraction, local exhaust ventilation.
  4. If after implementing the above control measures a risk to health or safety still remains, reduce that risk, so far as is reasonably practicable, by using administrative controls.  For example, reducing exposure by rotating between high exposure and low or no exposure tasks, safety training, work instructions, warning signs, supervision.
  5. If a risk to health or safety still remains after implementing the above, reduce that risk, so far as is reasonably practicable, by providing personal protective equipment (PPE).  This includes using protective clothing and respiratory protection such as a half face respirator or a powered air-purifying respirator, or a combination of appropriate PPE.

In most cases, a combination of control measures will need to be applied to minimise risk as much as possible. For example, by using a hand held tool that has an integrated water feed plus respiratory protective equipment and administrative controls such as work instructions, training and supervision.

Writing up the SWMS - What should be included?

You can use any form or template to write up the SWMS, including paper and electronic formats, provided the information below is included and is readily accessible. A SWMS template is available here.

  • List the tasks, preferably in the order that the tasks will be carried out, e.g., cutting concrete with a power tool, removing debris generated by cutting, cleaning the tools, cleaning the work area and PPE.  Ensure all tasks that could generate or redistribute RCS are identified and included in the SWMS.
  • State the hazards and risks to health and safety from each task.  For work with materials containing crystalline silica the hazard would be ‘exposure to RCS’ and the risk can be assumed to be ‘developing a silica-related disease’.
  • State the risk control measures selected, alongside each of the hazard and risk for each task.  This should include the type of tool or process that will be used to minimise RCS and how to clean up and decontaminate the work area, tools and equipment.
  • State how the risk control measures will be implemented. This should include the instruction and training required for the workers, supervision required and who is responsible for ensuring the control measures are in place are installed, used, maintained and reviewed when necessary.

The control measures must be set out and expressed in a way that is readily accessible and comprehensible to the persons who will use the SWMS.

The SWMS should also identify the names of workers that will carry out the work that have been trained and instructed about the risks and the control measures detailed in the SWMS.

Can I use a generic SWMS?

A generic SWMS can be used after it has been reviewed and revised as necessary to make sure that it covers the specific hazards and risks present on the site where the work is to be carried out.  A generic SWMS needs to be reviewed/revised prior to commencing the work and prior to commencing a new activity or a change in work location or circumstances.

To find out more, contact HIA’s Safety Services team.

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