The Guardian 20 April, 2005
Tunnel workers on the Chatswood rail link in Sydney are being told to shave their beards to save the boss money. Contractors, Thiess Hochtief, introduced ten cent paper masks for underground workers exposed to deadly silica dust.
Workers say facial hair renders the masks ineffective but Thiess Hochtief has ordered them to have a shave and get on with the job.
"This is cost-cutting gone mad", said Andrew Ferguson from the state Construction Division of the CFMEU. "The real solution is to improve ventilation so there is no need for the masks, or at the very least that something better than a ten cent paper mask from a hardware store.
"This flies in the face of WorkCover order of controls. The WorkCover rules contained in the OHS regulations say that a risk must be eliminated, and if it cannot be eliminated it must be controlled."
The "order of control" calls for risks to be minimised by engineering means, such as adequate ventilation, before using personal protective equipment, which should be the last resort in risk management according to the law.
Thiess Hochtief moved to the ten cent masks after a new occupational exposure standard for silica dust came into effect in January, halving the acceptable levels.
Tunnellers are getting 10-15 minutes use out of each sub-standard mask.
Workers argued in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission that the masks are uncomfortable and impractical in the wet and humid tunnel.
They were refusing to work overtime, or shifts longer than eight hours, to protest against the masks but were ordered back to work by the Commission.
Inhaled dust can cause silicosis — a scarring of lung tissue which makes it difficult to breathe — and increases the risk of lung cancer. A WorkCover inspector told the commission the masks were "uncomfortable, you can't communicate in them, they're hot".