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Exposure to airborne hazardous chemicals in the workplace can pose significant health risks to workers.

Most exposure to these chemicals happens when workers inhale vapours, dusts, fumes or gases, but absorption through the skin may also be a significant source of exposure for some chemicals.

The extent to which a worker is exposed depends on the concentration of the chemical in the air, the amount of time they are exposed and the effectiveness of controls.

Exposure to chemicals may cause immediate acute health effects or it may be decades before effects become evident.

Workplace exposure standards in Australia

Workplace exposure standards (WES) in Australia cover approximately 700 chemicals.

A WES for a particular chemical sets out the legal concentration limit of that chemical that must not be exceeded. These limits are published in the Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants list

WES are the airborne concentrations of a chemical that are not expected to cause adverse effects on the health of an exposed worker.  However, WES are not intended to represent acceptable exposure levels for workers. They are simply the maximum upper limit prescribed by legislation. 

WES do not identify a dividing line between a healthy or unhealthy working environment. Everyone is different, and this means that some people might experience adverse health effects below the exposure standard.

Work health and safety duties 

A business must ensure that a worker is not exposed to airborne chemicals above the workplace exposure standard.

The model Code of practice: Managing risks of hazardous chemicals in the workplace provides guidance on a four-step risk management approach to managing the risks of hazardous chemicals, which is hazard identification, risk assessment, risk control and review. See also Identify, assess and control hazards.

Air monitoring for airborne contaminants

To comply with the model WHS Regulations, businesses may need to monitor workers’ exposure to airborne chemicals if:

  • there is uncertainty whether or not the exposure standard has been or may be exceeded, or
  • it is necessary to work out whether there is a risk to health.

Records of air monitoring must be kept for a minimum of 30 years and must be made available to workers who are exposed.

Review of the workplace exposure standards

We are currently reviewing the workplace exposure standards  to ensure they are based on the highest quality evidence and supported by a rigorous, scientific approach. This will result in recommendations for the workplace exposure standard values, notations and the list of chemicals. 

Individual evaluation reports for each chemical, including recommendations and supporting information, are being published for public feedback. Refer to the Workplace exposure standards for chemicals review webpage for more information on the review.

Key workplace exposure standards documents

Workplace exposure standards of other countries

Further advice

SWA is not a regulator and cannot advise you about compliance with exposure standards in your workplace. If you need help, please contact your state or territory work health and safety regulator.

Codes and guides

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