Kate Cole shares her Fellowship experience...
17 Dec 2018
In support of the NEW Auto Skills Australia Churchill Fellowship to increase expertise and knowledge for the benefit of the automotive sector and allied industries
What was your Churchill Fellowship topic?
I received my Fellowship in 2016 to investigate best practice to prevent illness and disease in tunnel construction workers. It was an opportune time as we are in the midst of a large infrastructure boom which involves a significant amount of new tunnel construction. I travelled to some of the world’s tunnelling epicentres – the UK, Norway, Switzerland and the USA.
What motivated you to apply for a Churchill Fellowship?
I have worked in the construction sector for almost two decades. Throughout this time I’ve seen a positive increase in focussing on the importance of safety and the prevention of workplace fatalities due to safety incidents. The same amount of importance is not always placed on preventing fatality due to occupational illness and disease however, and in some cases we lag behind the rest of the world.
Construction and tunnelling relies on disturbing high-quartz containing rocks such as sandstone, in addition to using quartz-containing products such as cement and shotcrete. This process generates a carcinogenic dust known as respirable crystalline silica, or “silica dust”. Over-exposure to silica dust causes incurable diseases including silicosis and lung cancer.
I was motivated to apply for a Churchill Fellowship because the amount of tunnel construction about to be undertaken in Australia was about to significantly increase. There were pockets of excellence in the tunnelling industry where ill-health prevention was managed well, yet there were areas where I believed that insufficient effort was being applied to proactively address this issue.
My fellowship was about learning how other countries successfully delivered major tunnelling projects while preventing occupational illness and disease in the workforce. Essentially finding out what best practice is in delivering much needed infrastructure without leaving a legacy of industrial disease.
How did the Churchill Fellowship benefit you, and your work in automotive sector and allied industries [which include heavy vehicle equipment and processes using in mining]?
My Churchill Fellowship has been instrumental in many ways. Firstly, in my role supporting Transport for NSW on the Sydney Metro project, I have been able to implement learnings at a Client level that have a direct benefit to workers at the tunnel face. I have collaborated with our work health and safety regulator to support them in developing tools and campaigns targeting silica dust control, and I formed Australia’s first industry group that brought together clients, contractors and regulators to tackle the issue of silica dust exposure during tunnel construction. I instigated and lead the Australian Tunnelling Society’s Air Quality Working Group which produced much needed reference material to fill a large knowledge gap in this area.
While I hadn’t thought of myself as working in the automotive industry, I understand that the allied industries of the automotive sector include heavy vehicle equipment and processes using in construction and mining. Indeed, many of those processes have much similarity to the processes employed in tunnel construction. My Churchill fellowship taught me to look more broadly when searching for answers to challenging problems, and that in my case, the solution was in a multi-disciplined approach through collaboration with many stakeholders, some of which were outside our direct industry. That process of having a broad outward view on solving problems compared to an insular focus on what we already know or don’t know, is resulting in a positive step-change in this sector.
What major achievements or milestones have you reached since going on your Fellowship?
Since returning from my fellowship, an increased level of attention has been placed on the importance of preventing exposure to silica dust and preserving the health of the workforce by many stakeholders. These include the local state regulator SafeWorkNSW which included crystalline silica in their health and safety strategies, and more broadly, Safe Work Australia who have been instrumental in promoting the work through their Virtual Seminar Series. More major projects are engaging experienced professionals such as Certified Occupational Hygienists (COH)® to help them effectively manage occupational health across their projects, and industry has worked together to produce reference material to benefit the wider sector to fill a much-needed gap that existed in the body of knowledge.
Since returning from my Fellowship, I was named by the Australian Financial Review as one of the Top 100 Women of Influence in the Board and Management category for my work in tackling silica dust exposure in the construction sector. I was also named as a Superstar of STEM, being one of 60 Australian women who will champion Science & Technology Australia’s vision to increase the public visibility of women in STEM.
More about Kate Cole
Kate is a Certified Occupational Hygienist who has worked in the construction industry for almost two decades on projects in Australia, Hong Kong and the USA. She holds degrees in Science, Engineering, and Occupational Hygiene, and is currently supporting Sydney Metro as the Occupational Health and Hygiene Manager.
Kate is a passionate advocate for preserving the health of Australian construction workers. She has been the catalyst for industry change and works to raise awareness of the importance of worker health protection from a number of occupational health hazards.
Read more from The Australian Tunnelling Society
Auto Skills Australia Churchill Fellowship
In 2019 the new Auto Skills Australia Churchill Fellowship will be offered annually for projects that aim to increase industry expertise and knowledge for the benefit of the automotive sector and allied industries in Australia. Fellowship Applications open on 1 February 2019 and close 30 April 2019.
Find out more about the Auto Skills Australia Churchill Fellowships.
Find out more about how to apply for a Churchill Fellowship.