The New Zealand Engineered Stone Advisory Group (NZESAG) partnered with +IMPAC Services Ltd (+IMPAC) to establish and implement the Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS) Accreditation Programme to reduce the risk of silicosis across the engineered stone fabrication sector in New Zealand.
My name is Geoffrey Davies, and I am the health and safety manager at Waikato Benchtops, one of the biggest manufacturers of benchtops in the Upper North Island. The company has approximately 22 staff, of which ten are employed in stone manufacturing.
I was hired more than ten years ago to oversee health and safety at all the businesses in the Huntly Joinery Manufacturing Group, which demonstrates an early commitment of the directors to health and safety.
What level did you achieve?
We achieved Silver in our audit in February 2023 (Level 2 Interim Accreditation), meaning we have met significant elements of the Good Practice Guide. We just missed out on Gold, but I am confident we will achieve Gold next time.
Why did you want to get accredited? Why is it important?
We have been aware of accelerated silicosis (a deadly lung disease caused by exposure to tiny particles of silica dust) since it came to public attention in Australia.
Since then, we have been working hard to keep our staff safe and healthy. For example, we are a completely wet factory which means we work with wet cutters, wet hand tools, wet polishers and grinders--to name a few--because the water limits silica dust.
We also use disposable clothing or washable overalls (so that staff do not go home with remnants of silica dust on their clothing). For staff with beards, we go beyond face masks and provide them with powered air respirators.
We did the accreditation because we wanted to find any holes and establish where we could improve. The accreditation provides a more scientific analysis with the kind of technology, like exposure monitoring, to which we do not have ready access. We wanted to achieve some genuine, good improvement out of that. I wanted to improve safety even more.
How did you find the process? And the support provided?
The assessors were very knowledgeable and having another pair of eyes to go over everything, especially when you're so close to the day-to-day operations, was immensely helpful. We learned a lot from it. It's hard work, but the support is tremendous, so we saw a lot of improvement between the first and second audits.
What are the benefits of having been through the process?
One of the notable things of the audit was the scientific approach, which includes access to exposure monitoring (it is costly outside the accreditation process), and we were pleased to note that our exposure levels dropped by half between audits (exposure was already really low).
We're also realising the benefit of moving to complete water tooling, and it has become apparent how much that can help. As a health and safety manager, my job is to be at the forefront of health and safety developments. However, having an expert point out the small differences we can make was very valuable. For example, we received expert advice on where staff were positioned in relation to a tool and the extraction system. The advice led to a significant improvement by the second audit when we were awarded Silver.
Are you getting reaccredited – why do you feel it's important to do this?
We have been through two audits, the last in February 2023, and we will initiate a third audit early next year. The fact that we have already done two audits, with a third in the train, speaks to the seriousness with which we treat health and safety in the business (where other companies may be content with just one audit). We want that Gold accreditation.
There have been several positive developments in the business and the broader industry, which will help make our manufacturing process even safer. Suppliers are starting to roll out low-silica products, which will only benefit us. This, with a combination of other improvements, will help us better protect the health and safety of our staff.
What advice would you give to other fabricators considering accreditation?
The RCS Accreditation Programme is not a recommendation; it is a must. It is the moral thing to do. The accreditation process will lead to improvement and a lot of new ideas. The fact that we are going for it a third time shows the value we get from the process.