Exposure to substances or mixtures in the workplace can pose significant health risks to workers.
Most exposure 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 person is exposed depends on the concentration of the substance or mixture in the air, the amount of time they are exposed and the effectiveness of controls.
Substances and mixtures may cause immediate acute health effects or it may be decades before effects become evident.
Exposure standards in Australia
Exposure standards have been established in Australia for approximately 700 substances and mixtures. These are legal concentration limits that must not be exceeded.
Exposure standards do not identify a dividing line between a healthy or unhealthy working environment. Natural biological variation and the range of individual susceptibilities mean some people might experience adverse health effects below the exposure standard.
Exposure standards should not be considered as representing an acceptable level of exposure to workers, they are simply the maximum upper limit prescribed by legislation.
Work health and safety duties
A business must ensure that a worker is not exposed to airborne contaminants above the workplace exposure standard.
- See Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants for the list of workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants. This document also contains key information about how exposure standards are applied under the model WHS Regulations.
- See Guidance on the interpretation of workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants for further information on the exposure standards, as well as the Hazardous Chemicals Information System database.
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 contaminants if:
- there is uncertainty whether or not the exposure standard has been or may be exceeded
- 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.
Exposure standards consultation and review
We are currently reviewing exposure standards to ensure they are based on the highest quality evidence and supported by a rigorous, scientific approach.
During 2015 we held a public consultation process to examine the role of exposure standards and how they could be reviewed and maintained. We sought feedback from stakeholders on:
- the regulatory framework for exposure standards
- recommended changes (if any) to the level of individual exposure standards, and
- the costs and benefits associated with any proposed changes.
This consultation revealed that a review of the individual workplace exposure standards should be undertaken as a priority.
In 2016, we engaged Golder Associates Pty Ltd to conduct an initial scientific evaluation of Australia’s workplace exposure standards and provide a proposed revised list of exposure standards.
Building on this initial work, we are now finalising three methodologies for sourcing exposure standard information, evaluating individual workplace exposure standards and revising the list of airborne contaminants. This will ensure final recommendations are sound and supported by a robust evidence base.
Throughout 2017, we will develop and peer-review the methodologies both internally and with Health Canada. The methodologies will be made available to stakeholders when finalised.
Developing guidance for airborne contaminants
In early 2018, we will evaluate the list of workplace exposure standards according to the peer reviewed methodologies and develop the documentation required to support the recommendations for each airborne contaminant.
This work will result in a range of recommendations that may include:
- updates to the current standards
- removal of a standard
- changes to notations
- a finalised list of chemicals and compounds to be listed in the workplace exposure standards
We expect to complete this work by mid-2018.
We are also conducting a literature review to identify gaps in evidence and knowledge around the use of workplace exposure standards by small and medium enterprises. This will support future work on the regulatory impact assessment process, including stakeholder consultation sessions planned in 2017 and 2018.
Consultation Regulation Impact Statement
A consultation regulation impact statement for the workplace exposure standards framework is underway. This will integrate the outcomes of the public consultation, scientific evaluation, peer review and literature review.
Consultations for this impact statement will be open to the public, regulators with responsibility for managing the risks of hazardous chemicals and airborne contaminants, industry and industry groups, unions, professionals and other interested or affected people.
In early 2018 we will commence face-to-face consultations and establish an online consultation space.
Contribute to the review
To stay up-to-date with the review into workplace exposure standards, or take part in consultation opportunities, subscribe to the chemical exposure standards mailing list.
If you have any further questions about workplace exposure standards, email WES@swa.gov.au.
Key exposure standards documents
- Guidance on the interpretation of workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants
- Hazardous Chemical Information System (HCIS)
Exposure standards of other countries
- GESTIS—International limit values for chemical agents. This database is provided by IFA—an institute for research and testing of the German Social Accident Insurance in Germany.
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.
Advice on the application of workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants in the workplace.
A list of workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants and how to meet your duties under the Work Health and Safety Act and Regulations.