Understanding Silica Dust Exposure in the ACT Construction Industry

  • 2023

  • Design Research

Commissioned By:

WorkSafe ACT

Designed In:


This research explores the behaviour of ACT construction workers regarding silica dust safety, explaining the multi-faceted challenges and pressures on workers and businesses across the industry that is hampering safe practices. It lays the foundation for future interventions to improve construction site safety nationwide.

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  • The design challenge was to help WorkSafe understand why most people are aware of the dangers of silica dust, but uptake of correct safety practices is often slow and sometimes inadequate. Silica dust is present in many different industries and exposure can cause irreparable damage to a person’s lungs, and in some cases, lead to death. Awareness of silica dust risks has been growing in the past decade, and regulation and safety standards are growing with it. WorkSafe ACT needed to expand their understanding to learn more about worker behaviours and attitudes in all professions.

  • ThinkPlace used a wide range of qualitative immersive research methodologies to meet workers where they worked, talk about what they wanted to talk about and in whatever format they chose. We also used a wide range of methods to recruit participants to ensure an unbiased selection with workers across industries. This highly flexible and unassuming methodology allowed us to explain the complex behaviour across the whole sector, not just within certain professions. We gained insights that were cross-cutting in a complex space, giving more detail to an under researched part of our workplaces.

  • The research not only described the attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours towards silica dust risks in the ACT, it gave clear and multi-faceted understandings for why they are formed and how they could be influenced. It provided clear outlines of the different challenges faced by occupations, workplace, and individuals that all influence workers safety behaviour. The immersive qualitative research was sent to WorkSafe organisations across Australia and allows a whole-of-system analysis that means that regulations and future interventions can be more accurately targeted to help workers protect themselves and avoid slowly their business.

  • This research was a truly unassuming and empathetic methodology. It allowed us and participants to chat for long periods of time, often in tangential conversations that would be closer to casually hanging out than a formal interview. We would meet the participants at their worksite, on their lunch break, or while having cigarettes on a street corner. The recruitment methods involved a wide range of techniques, including existing networks, cold calling businesses, and asking for participants to provide further contacts. This meant that we saw dozens of different workplaces, heard many more stories from participants, and spoke to safety officers, wealthy business owners, apprentices, and workers with decades of experience. By allowing this significant space and time for our recruitment and research, we were able to see further than quick and shallow answers that are typical of workplace research. We were able to find the common threads between professions and truly understand their motivations and challenges which were often unrelated to their job or workplace. This allowed us to succinctly explain them to the regulator so they could design the best possible regulations and interventions.