When workers are aware of the health and safety risks in their workplace, they can address health and safety concerns and follow safe work practices. Information about workers’ current and changing awareness of health and safety hazards, risk perception and safe work practices can help to understand where to focus prevention strategies.
In 2009-10, Safe Work Australia undertook research with four construction trades (painters, plumbers, electricians and carpenters) to understand asbestos exposure and compliance. This research examined the workers’ awareness of asbestos risks, perception of the likelihood of asbestos exposure and health risks and their safe work practices.
The research found the majority of tradespersons:
- were aware of the potential health risks of asbestos
- understood that handling asbestos containing materials could lead to exposure
- believed that the potential for personal exposure to airborne asbestos fibres at work was low (low risk perception), and
- felt confident about working safely with asbestos-containing materials.
Importantly, assessment of their safety practices revealed that many of this group did not follow safety procedures and were not aware of the full extent of safety measures required to prevent harmful exposure to asbestos.
In 2013-14 Safe Work Australia furthered this work in the structural metal product manufacturing industry as it had a high rate of work-related injury and illness. Face to face interviews with 54 employers and managers explored work health and safety perceptions, attitudes and workplace practices in this industry.
The study found employers and managers were aware that they worked in a high risk industry. However, participants were confident that adequate safety procedures were in place and this meant the health and safety risk in their workplace was low. Many believed they had done all they could to protect their work health and safety. However, when asked about their health and safety practices, many were relying on personal protective equipment rather than higher-order risk management controls like substituting or isolating the hazard.
Both these studies showed a mismatch between the people’s risk awareness, perception, their assessment of their health and safety knowledge and actual health and safety practices.
These findings highlight the need to increase both workers’ and employers’ health and safety capabilities to ensure hazards and risks are identified and appropriate safety procedures are followed.