Workers encounter a wide variety of substances, physical agents and working conditions during the course of their work. Some can cause, contribute to or exacerbate disease and injury either on their own or in combination with other work or non-work risk factors. Better understanding of current hazard exposures, the effectiveness of controls, and attitudes towards health and safety are research priorities of the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012–2022.
Safe Work Australia and its predecessors have undertaken wide ranging research on hazard surveillance systems, hazard surveillance methods and exposures to hazards and risk factors in the workplace.
Hazard surveillance work
National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance 2008
The 2008 National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance (NHEWS) survey was the first national survey on exposure to workplace hazards in Australia. It investigated Australian workers’ exposure to selected occupational disease-causing hazards, based on one or more of the eight priority occupational diseases identified by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) in 2004. The survey also collected information from workers about the controls provided in workplaces to eliminate or reduce these hazards.
Data were collected from 4500 workers in two stages. The first stage (n=1900) focussed on workers from the five national priority industries determined by NOHSC in 2003 and 2005 and the second stage (n=2600) surveyed workers from all industries.
The methodology and initial findings of the NHEWS surveys were published in:
- 2009: National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance (NHEWS): Survey Results
- 2008: National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance (NHEWS): Survey Handbook
Subsequent reports describe findings for hazard-based analyses:
- 2015: multiple hazards
- 2012: chemical exposure
- 2012: contact dermatitis
- 2011: biological hazards
- 2011: wet work hazards
- 2011: biomechanical demands
- 2010: noise exposure
- 2010: sunlight exposure
- 2010: airborne substances
- 2010: vibration
The NHEWS survey data has also been used in industry-based summaries of recent Safe Work Australia research:
Australian Workplace Exposures Study
The 2011 Australian Work Exposures Study (AWES) was a survey that investigated self-reported work-related exposures to 38 known or suspected carcinogens among Australian workers. This research provides an opportunity to gain a better understanding of exposure to carcinogens when Australian workers carry out relatively common tasks at work.
The AWES research was led by Dr Lin Fritschi at the Western Australian Institute of Medical Research and funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Cancer Council Australia. Telephone interviews were conducted using a population-based sample and responses to task-based questions were analysed using an automated expert assessment method (OccIDEAS) to assess if a worker might be exposed to carcinogens at work, and then, taking into account controls being used by the worker, to assess the potential level of exposure. The researchers intend to use these recently collected Australian data to re-examine the potential burden of work-related cancer.
To date three reports have been published from the AWES
The Extended Australian Workplace Exposure Study (AWES-2)
The 2014 Extended Australian Work Exposures Study (AWES-2) used the AWES methodology to investigate self-reported work-related exposures to agents which cause or aggravate asthma.
The AWES-2 research is led by Dr Lin Fritschi at the Curtin University of Technology (previously at the Harry Perkins Institute for Medical Research or the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research) and funded through a National Health and Medical Research Council Partnership Project grant (with co-funding provided by Safe Work Australia, the Cancer Council Australia and the Cancer Council of Western Australia).
National occupational hazard and risk management surveillance (NOHARMS)
Safe Work Australia is investigating exposures to hazards associated with priority work disorders within priority industries using small, targeted studies for specific industry sub-sectors and hazards. NOHARMS projects include exposure measurements where possible, and workers and managers are asked about risk management practices including the provision and use of controls.
The first NOHARMS project investigated exposures to noise, dust, vibration and chemicals on small mixed grain and livestock farms in Western Australia. Results are expected to be published in 2016.
Safe Work Australia works with others on the identification of psychosocial factors that impact on people’s wellbeing and effectiveness at work.
The Australian Workplace Barometer project
The Australian Workplace Barometer project aims to provide evidence of Australian work conditions and their relationships to workplace health and productivity through a national monitoring and surveillance system.
This mostly Australian Research Council-funded project was conducted in 2010 in partnership with the Centre for Applied Psychological Research at the University of South Australia, SafeWork South Australia and Safe Work Australia. The project was developed to collect data from six Australian states and territories to set national benchmarks and to provide evidence to develop best practice standards in the area of worker psychological health and wellbeing, It is also relevant to inform policy development, intervention targets and provision of resources.
The Australian Workplace Barometer: Report on psychosocial safety climate and worker health in Australia was published by Safe Work Australia in 2012. The Australian Workplace Barometer project was repeated in 2014 using data obtained from all Australian states and territories. Reports from the project are due to be published in early 2016.
People at Work project
The original Australian Research Council (ARC)-funded People at Work project aimed to increase the capacity of employers to identify and manage psychosocial risks and test the effectiveness of interventions designed to improve the psychosocial working environment. This project was managed by the Queensland University of Technology (initially the University of Queensland) in partnership with Tthe Australian National University, Work Health and Safety Queensland, WorkCover New South Wales, WorkSafe Victoria, Comcare, Beyondblue and Safe Work Australia.
The ARC funding agreement ended on 30 December 2015. The PAW project governance committee has worked hard to develop a plan for the future of this project that will ensure the tool remains available to businesses seeking to assess psychosocial risks in their workplaces.
Work Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ), the organisation leading the PAW sustainability project, took the matter to a Heads of Workplace Safety Authorities (HWSA) meeting in March 2016, seeking and receiving approval for the PAW project governance committee to be re-established as a HWSA network group to support the next phase of the project. Establishing a network group with representation from all jurisdictions through HWSA will help to ensure a national presence and a consistent application of the PAW project.
The next steps for the PAW sustainability project are to transition the PAW project to be a sustainable, user friendly and cost effective psychosocial risk assessment process. To do this, the project aims to deliver:
- a shortened version of the psychosocial risk assessment tool that is website and device-friendly
- a workplace toolkit to facilitate industry self-administration of the risk assessment process without expert intervention, and
- industry-focused research, e.g. a construction industry intervention to determine key mental health risks affecting construction workers.
To keep up to date on the PAW project, please see the WHSQ website.
Personality and total health (PATH) through life project
This project is a longitudinal study over 20 years examining mental health and cognitive ability across the life span. It is a community survey of 7,485 people from the ACT and Queanbeyan, NSW and includes three cohorts or age groups (birth years 1975–79, 1956–60 and 1937–41) selected at random from the electoral roll. More detail is published on the PATH through Life project webpage.
The original aims of the study were to document the prevalence and incidence of common mental disorders, substance use and cognitive ability across the adult life span, and consider the environmental and genetic risk factors influencing individual differences. Over time the scope of the study has broadened with the addition of a number of sub-studies: normative brain ageing; cardiovascular risk assessment; and a health and memory study of cognitive decline in the elderly. Safe Work Australia’s involvement since 2011 has added new measures relevant to work health and safety.
Safe Work Australia provides policy direction, conducts research and provides guidance on the potential work safety and health implications from applications of nanotechnology.