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.
Workplace exposure standards in Australia
Workplace exposure standards have been established in Australia for approximately 700 substances and mixtures. These are legal concentration limits that must not be exceeded.
Workplace 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.
Workplace 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 workplace 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 workplace 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.
Workplace exposure standards consultation and review
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.
During 2015 we held a public consultation process to examine the role of workplace exposure standards and how they could be reviewed and maintained. We sought feedback from stakeholders on:
- the regulatory framework for workplace exposure standards
- recommended changes (if any) to the level of individual workplace 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 commissioned a consultancy to undertake a preliminary evaluation of Australia’s workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants. It provided an indication of the standards that may need updating and highlighted that:
- toxicological knowledge and recommendations for airborne hazardous chemicals have advanced significantly since the workplace exposure standards were first adopted in 1995
- there are significant differences across international standard setting agencies in the science policies used to determine an exposure standard, and
- the evaluation process used to review and determine a workplace exposure standard must be timely, applicable to contemporary Australia and adaptable to advancements in toxicological knowledge.
Building on the preliminary evaluation, we have developed a suite of methodologies for sourcing exposure standard information, evaluating individual workplace exposure standards, including notations, and revising the list of chemicals. The workplace exposure standards and notations derived from these methodologies will be supported by a robust evidence base.
The application of the methodologies will ensure that the process for updating the workplace exposure standards is consistent, transparent and sustainable into the future.
The methodologies were peer-reviewed internally, with Health Canada and with Australian experts. Once approved by Safe Work Australia Members, the methodologies will be made available to stakeholders and published on our website.
Consultation Regulation Impact Statement
A consultation regulation impact statement (consultation RIS) for the workplace exposure standards framework is in progress. This will integrate the outcomes from the public discussion paper, The role of chemical exposure standards in work health and safety laws (2015) and the Business survey on workplace exposure standards (2017).
The consultation RIS considers options to update Australia’s list of workplace exposure standards. It focuses on the purpose of the WHS laws and workplace exposure standards to protect workers and will model the impacts of the update based on case example chemicals and the initial predictions from the preliminary evaluation. It will investigate the impacts of:
- values that are too lenient; i.e. those that are too high to protect workers against adverse effects
- values that are too stringent; i.e. those that are too low and impose unnecessary burden
- listing of chemicals that are not reflective of contemporary Australian workplaces, and
- the status of the standards under the model laws; i.e. mandatory or advisory.
Consultations for this impact statement will be open shortly 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.
An online consultation space will be established and submissions can also be made by email or post. The submissions will be used to inform the decision regulation impact statement to be published at the end of 2018.
Evaluating the workplace exposure standards
Using the peer reviewed methodologies, an evaluation of the individual chemicals will be conducted on the Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants list and any additional chemicals identified.
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 for Airborne Contaminants.
The evaluations of individual chemicals will commence in 2018 using an experienced service provider, and will include an independent peer review process. Once the evaluations are complete, individual chemical evaluation reports will be available on our website.
To ensure that we can effectively keep the list of workplace exposure standards up-to-date and aligned with Australian usage of chemicals, we are also developing a process for scheduled reviews. This process will be informed by the review work and the feedback from the consultation RIS.
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 workplace exposure standards documents
- Guidance on the interpretation of workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants
- Hazardous Chemical Information System (HCIS)
Workplace 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.