Workplace Exposure Standards have been in place in Australia since 1995 to help businesses eliminate or reduce the harmful chemicals to which their workers are exposed. They aim to promote Workplace Health and Safety as per the regulation and laws established in the country to secure employee health.
The various chemical manufacturing and other industries in Australia release hazardous chemicals like dust, gases, fumes, vapours, and mists can be released into the air during the various workplace processes. These are referred to as airborne contaminants, which might be invisible. People who breathe in airborne contaminants at work may experience adverse health effects, including the development of occupational lung disease. Continual exposure can further lead to psychological disorders.
A person who conducts a business, or undertaking (PCBU) and belongs to any industry must eliminate workplace hazards. If elimination is impossible, one must reduce the risks to the greatest possible extent. This includes reducing the risks posed by airborne contaminants in the workplace and ensuring that workers and other employees working in a Company’s workplace are not exposed to airborne pollutants that exceed their workplace exposure standard (WES).
Workplace Exposure Standards
Workplace exposure standards (WES) for airborne contaminants contain the WES list. A person conducting a business or undertaking must ensure that no one in the workplace is exposed to an airborne contaminant at a composition that surpasses the WES as given in the model work health and safety (WHS) laws.
To determine if the WES for an airborne contaminant has been surpassed, workers’ exposure is assessed with the help of air monitoring in their breathing zone.
Types of Workplace Exposure Standards
WES is based on an airborne contaminant’s ‘critical effect.’ This is the lowest airborne proportion to which a person can usually be exposed before experiencing its adverse effects. A critical effect can be either a short-term health effect, such as nausea or dizziness, or a long-term health effect, such as organ damage or cancer.
There are three types of WES values, which are explained in brief below:
1. Time Weighted Average (TWA)
The substance is assigned a TWA value if the critical effect on a worker is chronic (long-term) or sub-chronic (medium-term). This is an 8-hour time-weighted average, which is the average airborne exposure of a worker during any 8-hour work shift throughout a 40-hour week. The majority of substances inside the WES has a TWA.
2. Short Term Exposure Limit (STEL)
If the substance’s critical effect is acute (short-term), it is usually assigned a STEL value, which is a time-weighted average of 15 minutes.
3. Peak Limitation (peak)
A Peak value is assigned to a substance if its critical effect is acute and extremely dangerous. This is the maximum concentration that can be measured in the shortest amount of time, i.e. up to 15 minutes.
Notably, exposure standards do not distinguish between a healthy and unhealthy work environment. Due to the natural human biological variations and individual susceptibilities like a pre-existing medical condition, a handful of individuals may still encounter adverse health effects from exposure at levels lower than the WES. As a result, exposure to airborne contaminants must be kept as minimal as feasibly practicable in order to protect the well-being of the workers and other employees working in the workplace of an Australian organisation.
Furthermore, it should be noted that the authority in Australia can penalise businesses that fail to adhere to Workplace Exposure Standards. Companies should focus on the workers’ safety besides focusing on earning profit.
Changes in Workplace Exposure Standards
Workplace exposure standards have existed since 1995 and are periodically reviewed and updated. Following a July 2020 update to reduce the WES for respirable crystalline silica, the WES list was most recently updated in October 2022 to reduce the WES for respirable coal dust.
However, the WES list is currently undergoing a broader review.
When should air quality testing be conducted?
According to the WHS model regulations r 50:
Air monitoring should be carried out to determine the airborne concentration of a substance or mixture at the workplace to which an exposure standard exists, if:
- The organisation (its responsible employees) is not certain on reasonable grounds whether or not the airborne concentration of the substance or mixture at the workplace exceeds the relevant exposure standard
- Monitoring is necessary to determine whether there is a risk to health
Workplace Exposure Standards Review
Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants are being evaluated by Safe Work Australia to ensure they are based on the best available evidence and are supported by a rigorous scientific approach.
For your knowledge, draught evaluation reports and recommendations for workplace exposure standards (WES) are provided.
Each report includes:
- a suggested WES value
- information on the establishment of the recommendation, and
- a summary of the data used to support the recommendation.
The WES values that have been recommended are health-based suggestions made by expert consultants using the accepted methodology developed by Safe Work Australia, and they have been separately participant reviewed.
Feedback invited by Safe Work Australia
Safe Work Australia is inviting feedback on the above values, especially comments of a technical nature related to:
- the toxicological data and facts on which the value is based, and
- the evaluation and measurement data are given.
Throughout the project, Safe Work Australia seeks technical comments on the draught evaluation reports and recommendations for workplace exposure standards.
Feedback from business owners and employees is critical for Safe Work Australia Members when making recommendations to Work Health and Safety (WHS) Ministers about changes to workplace exposure standards.
Changes to workplace exposure standards become compulsory by law only after they have been agreed upon by a majority of WHS Ministers and incorporated into WHS legislation in the Commonwealth, states, and territories.
On February 1, 2021, the public consultation for the workplace exposure standards (WES) review was relaunched with Release 15: Paraffin wax to Zirconium compounds. Release 15 included all deferred reports from previous releases.
This date also marks the end of the feedback period for previously published releases 2-14.
Business owners, employees, and other associated individuals could provide feedback for Release 15: Paraffin wax to Zirconium compounds until July 30, 2021, during which the feedback and recommendations were finalised.
Limitations of Workplace exposure standards
As per Safework Australia Exposure standards do not identify the dividing line between a healthy and unhealthy work environment. Natural biological variation and the range of individual susceptibilities mean a small number of people may experience adverse health effects below the exposure standard. Sections 17 and 19 of the WHS Act together require that exposure to substances in the workplace is kept as low as is reasonably practicable.
How Can Anitech’s Occupational hygienists help?
Anitech’s Occupational hygienists service the Australian market with their experience in guiding businesses in Australia on monitoring for airborne and other contaminants and providing advice on mitigation measures to control exposure to airborne contaminants.
Anitech’s OHS consultants can assists organisations implement an ISO 45001-based robust safety management system, performing internal audits, and providing assistance on ISO 45001 Certification. Our team of professionals who have experience of over 15+ years in WHS consulting and Occupational Hygiene services.
Anitech’s Occupational hygienists in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane advice Australian organisations on air monitoring, and mitigation strategies to keep employee exposure below the Workplace Exposure Standards, as it is their duty to take care of their employees by creating safe work environments.
For more information on the Workplace Exposure Standards and to know about the Occupational Hygiene Consulting services we provide, do refer to our website, or drop an inquiry here.
To ensure that you comply with the standards, you can seek professional help from Occupation Hygienists from Anitech.
You can connect with our experts by calling us at 1300 802 163 or emailing us at Info@anitechgroup.com.