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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.

Revised workplace exposure standards for respirable crystalline silica and respirable coal dust

Work Health and Safety (WHS) ministers have agreed by the requisite majority to reduce the workplace exposure standards (WES) for respirable coal dust and respirable crystalline silica.

• Respirable coal dust will be reduced to a time weighted average (TWA) of 1.5 mg/m3
• Respirable crystalline silica will be reduced to a TWA of 0.05 mg/m3.

WHS ministers further agreed that the revised WES for respirable coal dust will apply from 1 October 2022 (allowing for a three year transitional period). For respirable crystalline silica, WHS ministers agreed the revised WES be implemented as soon as practicable.

Safe Work Australia has published a revised version of the Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants that contains the revised value for respirable crystalline silica. It is up to individual governments to implement this change into jurisdictional WHS laws.

For more information about how and when the change to the revised WES will affect you, please contact the WHS authority in your jurisdiction.

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 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.

Safe Work Australia has 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.

These recommendations will be released alphabetically for public comment throughout 2019-2020. Each release will include recommendations for approximately 50 chemicals.

Regulation impact statement

Consultation regulation impact statement

Consultation regulation impact statement

In 2018, we published a consultation regulation impact statement (consultation RIS) to determine the impact of, and best way to implement, an update to Australia’s workplace exposure standard framework.

The consultation RIS outlined and tested the current state of knowledge regarding the costs and benefits of the status quo, and presented potential options to address the problems identified with the current workplace exposure standard framework.
It explored whether the workplace exposure standards should remain mandatory under the model Work Health and Safety laws or if advisory status is more appropriate. It also explored changing the name of workplace exposure standards to workplace exposure limits. 

The consultation RIS was supported by a six-week public consultation period. We received 31 submissions with valuable feedback from a range of stakeholders including, WHS regulators, government, industry and industry groups, unions, professionals and other interested or affected people.

A consultation summary and submissions received are available to read on our consultation platform, Engage.

Decision regulation impact statement

The submissions from the consultation RIS informed the Decision regulation impact statement: Workplace exposure standards framework under the model Work Health and Safety laws (decision RIS).

The decision RIS was prepared to provide a recommendation to WHS Ministers on the preferred option for implementing an update to Australia’s workplace exposure standards and the status of the workplace exposure standards under the model WHS laws.

A majority of WHS ministers agreed to the preferred option in the decision RIS. This means:

  • there is no change to the requirement to ensure exposure standards for substances and mixtures are not exceeded (Regulation 49)
  • the Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants will be updated using the agreed methodology, and
  • the name of workplace exposure standards will be changed to workplace exposure limits.

There will be a standard three year transitional period for duty holders to comply with amendments to the workplace exposure standards.

Educational and guidance materials will be developed to support implementation and compliance.

Safe Work Australia will work closely with the Commonwealth, state and territory WHS regulators to implement the preferred option.

Stay updated

Stay informed about the workplace exposure standards review by subscribing  to the chemical exposure standards mailing list.
If you have any further questions about workplace exposure standards, email WES@swa.gov.au.

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 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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