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 in Australia cover approximately 700 chemicals. A workplace exposure standard for a particular chemical sets out the legal concentration limit of that chemical that must not be exceeded.
Workplace exposure standards are not intended to represent acceptable exposure levels for workers. They are simply the maximum upper limit prescribed by legislation.
Workplace exposure standards 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 list of Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants also contains key information about how workplace exposure standards are applied under the model WHS Regulations.
- The Guidance on the interpretation of workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants contains further information for businesses.
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.
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.
The review has commenced and we are seeking public comment on the draft evaluation reports and recommendations for workplace exposure standards via our consultation platform, Engage.
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 methodology for the review of workplace exposure standards, which includes:
- sourcing exposure standard information
- evaluating individual workplace exposure standards, including notations, and
- revising the list of chemicals.
This process will result in recommendations for the workplace exposure standard values, notations and the list of chemicals.
Consultation regulation impact statement
Thank you to everyone who participated in the consultation regulation impact statement (consultation RIS) for the workplace exposure standards framework, which is now closed. The consulation RIS integrates 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 considered options to update Australia’s list of workplace exposure standards. It focused 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 investigated 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 WHS laws; i.e. mandatory or advisory.
Submissions were received from WHS regulators, government, industry and industry groups, unions, professionals and other interested or affected people. The submissions received will be used to inform the decision regulation impact statement to be released in early 2019.
A consultation summary and submissions received are available to read on our consultation platform, Engage.
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
- Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminates
- Guidance on the interpretation of workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants
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.