The typical construction site will have many work activities that create dust which expose the worker to potentially harmful atmospheres. Activities such as excavations, grinding, cutting, sweeping, plastering, and sand blasting all could produce harmful dust depending on the construction materials being used and the level of silica content.

The most prevalent type of silica dust is quartz, followed by cristabalite and tridymite. Exposure to respirable quartz may cause considerable damage to the lungs through obstruction of the lungs and lung emphysema. Chronic exposure to high concentrations of respirable quartz may lead to silicosis, well known from the mining industry. Based on epidemiological studies, crystalline silica dust has been classified as a known human carcinogen.

Application of hierarchical controls of elimination, substitution and control should be followed. In most cases eliminating occupational exposure may not be possible and therefore control methods such as local exhaust ventilation (LEV), wet methods, procedural controls, and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) are available options.

Previous editions of Health and Safety Middle East have assessed the best Respiratory Protection Equipment (RPE) available to control risk, highlighted how to create an RPE programme at work (how to select, use, and maintain), and discussed the long term consequences of not protecting the workforce from harmful atmospheres.

This article explores worker compliance to RPE5 and achieving compliance through a continuous positive safety culture6-9. Good construction worksite safety programmes are the mechanisms to build a sustained positive safety culture and drive continuous respiratory protection compliance. Several common site safety programmes are described later. It is important to understand what safety culture is prior to applying the most effective worksite safety programmes. The safety culture ladder best describes the stages of achieving positive safety culture.

Safety culture ladder

Understanding your HSE culture and determining where you are on the safety culture ladder is critical in determining the level of success you will be able to achieve with the site safety programmes to manage respiratory protection compliance. The safety culture ladder describes five levels of culture.

“good construction worksite safety programmes are the mechanisms to build a sustained positive safety culture and drive continuous respiratory protection compliance”


Pathological organisations believe that individuals, typically at lower levels, cause accidents. They implement only what is mandatory, including required checks and audits. Most site safety programmes are ineffective at this level, as HSE is considered an obstacle to productivity. Pathological organisations respond to clear regulatory requirements, if enforced, and implement HSE programmes only as needed to avoid prosecution. As individuals are generally blamed for incidents, tools dealing with management system issues are unlikely to be adopted.


Reactive organisations consider HSE important but believe that most problems lie within the lower levels of the workforce. Organisational and individual HSE management skills are at a basic level, suggesting that site safety programmes should also be simple. The appropriate site safety programmes at this level are those that address problems obvious to both management and the workforce. Additional safety programmes that relate to issues that have not yet caused actual accidents are difficult to justify. Reactive organisations value those safety programmes that bear a clear relationship to a visible issue.


Calculative organisations believe in the value of systems in managing HSE performance and the use of a large number of site safety programmes, with a focus on analysing metrics rather than their effectiveness, i.e. number of people trained rather than an assessment of their competence. HSE professionals are seen as the drivers for the use of site safety programmes and are primarily responsible for HSE performance. In calculative organisations site safety programmes need to be justified based on current performance to address a specific issue associated with incidents and related risks, e.g. a hand and finger injury prevention campaign in response to hand injuries.


Proactive organisations consider HSE a fundamental (core) value and leaders at all levels genuinely care for the health and wellbeing of the staff and contractors. Such organisations understand the role of management system failures as primary causes of incidents. Information, including data related to potential consequences (near misses) as well as actual incidents, is used to identify suitable performance targets. Site safety programmes that simplify work processes and support line management as well as the workforce are used. Continuous improvement is a clear goal of proactive organisations.


Generative organisations have a high degree of self-sufficiency and strive to understand their entire operating environment. Site safety programmes that are chosen and used by the whole organisation are preferred. Mandatory safety programmes may be counter-productive, suggesting lack of trust. Everyone feels free to highlight both real and potential issues. Workers feel empowered to resolve HSE issues, and leaders provide the support needed.

Effective site safety programmes

There is a wide range of site safety programmes, some function at the organisational level and some target individual activities. Below are some common programmes that are applicable to most construction sites and can be targeted to attain respiratory protection compliance.

Leadership visibility

Achieving sustained positive safety culture is a journey where senior management is committed to continuous improvement. Senior management is crucial in creating a positive safety culture as they continuously communicate safety messages that the workforce observes. For site respiratory protection requirements, management can demonstrate their knowledge, experience and set the standard to the workforce. Conducting site visits and getting to know the front line workers through shaking hands, knowing first names, listening to the workforce, and rewarding individuals for positive safety behaviour are some of the visible activities a leader can do as part of good relationship management and clearly explain the site respiratory protection standard.

The next step in the safety culture ladder requires senior management to continually observe, verify controls are in place and take necessary corrective action. This is achieved by enhancing relationship management through quality observations and conversations with the all levels of the workforce, by taking time to observe tasks that require respiratory protection such as sand blasting, cutting and excavations.

Key questions senior management should be asking their workforce and HSE professionals on the respiratory protection are:

  1. Adequate – Is the RPE right for the hazard and reduces exposures to the level required to protect the workers’ health?
  2. Suitable – Is the RPE right for the wearer, task, and environment such that the wearer can work freely and without additional risks due to the RPE?

Management need to take corrective action if they believe occupational exposure exceeds legal requirements and where necessary support, coach and encourage compliance. Taking up to 15 minutes to observe work activities is an important aspect of learning and needs senior management to watch with an open mind. Supporting and coaching with all levels of the workforce increases hazard identification awareness and re-energises the workforce. Encouraging individuals to take action to correct unsafe acts and conditions creates positive long term safety behaviours.

Behavioural based systems

A behavioural based system should be simple to use for all the workforce, allow the user to categorise their observations, and record any corrective action taken. A register records all submitted observations for data analysis and trending. The above is the basis of a good behavioural observation tool and terms of cultural ladder, meets the requirements of a reactive organisation, where safety is important and a lot is done when an accident occurs. The behavioural based system is a powerful tool to record respiratory compliance and non-compliance. When implementing a new respiratory protection policy, management should encourage compliance, positive and negative through the site observational system, thus gathering information that can inform managements decision to either re-inforce or take corrective action.

To push through the next level of HSE culture, the calculative stage, an organisation needs to start investing time in fine tuning the observational tool in terms of quality submissions, taking the data analysis and trending to make safety decisions, and ownership by the front line. For example, workers should be encouraged to suggest ideas that increase respiratory compliance, or alternative ways to complete the task and reduce occupational exposure to dust. Quality observations can be achieved by showing the workforce what good looks like, through discussion, posters and rewarding a workforce that has submitted observations exceeding the standard observation. Simply sharing the observation tool register with the senior management can initiate safety discussions and with the HSE team guidance, driving safety actions. Senior management should have the opportunity to raise observations they feel deemed as a near miss, thus encouraging near miss reporting and focusing the senior management’s attention to potential high level severity incidents and appropriate corrective actions.

Starting work safely

A safe working day, where no accidents occur, can be increased by starting the work safely. This can be a challenge every day as most tasks are routine and repetitive. The initial engagement of supervisor and workforce is where:

  • The key safety messages need to be communicated
  • The work site is declared safe
  • The work is ready to start

The supervisor needs to prepare prior to the engagement and could use tools such as the job task analysis, the task risk assessment or a safe start checklist to aid and communicate respiratory protection compliance to the workforce. Support from HSE professionals is important to provide the supervisor with any technical information that outlines basic understanding of hazardous substances in the air (amount and form), and any specific wearer requirements, such as other PPE with RPE.

A supervisor’s visual check of the work site and any RPE prior to the start of work allows for continuous correction of unsafe conditions that may have occurred in the previous task, e.g. replacement of damaged dust masks or poor positive pressure. Others include adjusting the nose bridge on disposable RPE to ensure proper seal, ensuring all straps are used, any hoses are connected properly and battery RPE is fully charged. Once the work has started the supervisor role becomes one of monitoring and correcting, allowing and observing daily activities and PPE compliance to the site standard.

All the above are some of the basic foundations of the safety culture ladder and can be built upon to enhance the safe working environment. For example, the supervisor method of communication should be varied to continually re-energise the safety message. The supervisor should take into account previous incidents, near misses and any safety observations associated with respiratory protection non-compliance and communicate these with any positive messages. Supervisors should try to engage the workforce through any interactive means, this could be through requesting feedback to a safety message, encouraging the workforce to step forward and talk safety or volunteering workers to show each other how to correctly check, fit and store respiratory equipment.


Training of the workforce prior to starting work can highlight some of the common hazards to the workforce and the controls in place to stop someone getting hurt. Training can be done in many different ways. The most common training consists of initial site induction, work specific and on the job; these are the foundations of any good work site. Applying these principles to respiratory protection training should provide the workforce the right level of education. For example:

  • The induction should highlight work activities that need additional PPE
  • Work specific training should go into detail on hazards associated with and effects of harmful atmospheres, long term consequences of exposure, and the types of RPE available
  • On the job should show the workforce how RPE works (fit test, checking while wearing, maintaining, storing). The on the job training should consider using the supplier as a source of training materials

To enhance these training programmes, consideration should be given to coach and mentor the workforce while conducting work as part of the on the job training. This can be an engaging activity that builds strong trustful relationships with the workforce as well as allowing verification of effective classroom training. To apply this type of training support, the management should to be trained on different levels of RPE awareness, thus providing different training programmes for worker, supervisor, and advisor level. This will also allow for behavioural based training and setting safety expectations at different levels of the organisation.


A verification programme is one part of a good site safety programme and it should be clear what is being checked, how it will be checked, how it will be recorded, and who will correct any findings. A starting point for building a good verification programme should be the site HSE management system, which contains most of the standards and practices tailored for the work site. For example, the RPE should be part of the PPE standard and referred to in the job specific risk assessment, therefore the site RPE verification should refer to this key documentation. Verification templates can be useful to allow for a structured approach to verification, recording and corrective action.

Once a verification programme is up and running, there is an opportunity to look at how the verification is being conducted and improve the quality of corrective action. For example, verifying of RPE should be carried out over a number of days to allow for documentation, discussion and visual confirmation. This should allow for spot and system checks, and provide a broader understanding of how well the site RPE standard is being followed. Management should be open and honest and reflect the true picture of what is happening on the ground. RPE compliance can sometimes be negative and it is important to recognise and communicate the site issue to senior management. Communicating findings needs to take into account relationship management. For example, findings can be verbal and/or written, and informal or formal, allowing for the right corrective response and keeping the senior management and HSE professionals’ relationships healthy.

“providing the right level safety programmes should allow good initiation of RPE compliance”


The safety communication covers all aspects of the site safety programmes. The focus of this section is on common safety communication related to structured safety campaigns, posters, tool box talks and newsletters, which can be applied to any site compliance requirements, not least RPE. These programmes should be driven by information from behavioural based systems, recent incidents and work site activities. Providing safety communication in different languages and related to current visible work site hazards builds the base of the HSE culture ladder. The above structured approach can be applied to RPE communication.

To enhance and grow the safety communication programme to the next level of the HSE culture ladder could be achieved by simply allowing the discipline departments, with workforce involvement, to take ownership through developing and communicating the safety campaigns, tool box talks and newsletters. The HSE representative should support and coach the discipline departments during development and communication.


Senior management should continually incentivise the workforce whenever they are engaged in site activities. A simple activity of listening to the workforce, knowing individuals’ names and a thank you for following site RPE requirements can be rewarding. A structured incentive programme should be implemented that allows everyone to take part and be rewarded for safety, perhaps covering rewards for best behavioural based observation and intervention, best supervisor, best work team etc.

Aspiring to the next step on the HSE safety ladder, senior management should consider rewarding in front of crowds (with consent from the individual), thus maximising the visibility of what good safety looks like, introducing spot awards, with the expectation that everyone on the site will receive a spot reward, and regularly celebrating safety achievements.


Unfortunately, incidents do happen and senior management should maximise learnings from worksite incidents and similar work type incidents from other work sites. Serious incidents associated with harmful atmospheres, such as confined space entry are rare and continually need to be communicated to workforces. However, long term effects of not wearing dust masks can be difficult to show the workforce. This could be linked to the consequence being in the long term future and therefore not a current concern for individuals. It is important that management takes the opportunity to learn from incidents associated with long term effects of harmful atmospheres and communicate these to the workforce, including site controls. Everyone has the responsibility to follow the site controls to keep themselves and others safe from harmful atmospheres. Unfortunately any deviations from the site rules need to be thoroughly investigated which could mean disciplinary action for the violator(s).

Senior management should be very familiar with the work site reporting and investigation process to allow them to understand what happened and why, and what were the immediate and systematic causes leading to the incident. The senior management leadership on dealing with the findings and corrective action determines which level of the HSE culture ladder the site is categorised. Involving the workforce in investigations and corrective actions can be rewarding for the worker and allows for senior management to be open to front line perspective to deal with incidents.


Foundations of a good safety culture are related to early development of key site safety programmes during the construction ramp up phase. Common programmes consist of: mechanisms to allow leaders to be visible onsite; simple behavioural based systems allowing everyone to participate; discussion based verification; incentive programmes; safety communication development by disciplines; tailored training for different workforce levels; and shared learning between all those involved.

Providing the right level safety programmes should allow good initiation of RPE compliance. As the construction activities and workforce increase, the site safety programmes should be re-energised to progress through the safety culture ladder and sustain RPE compliance.