A work site can be a dangerous place. The risk of physical injuries from accidents involving vehicles and machinery is obvious enough.
But, workers can also be exposed to a myriad of unseen hazardous substances like toxic vapours, fumes, gases, and dust. Inhaled or absorbed into the skin, their impact may not be felt for years – even decades.
Earlier this year, three coal miners in Queensland were diagnosed with Coal Workers' Pneumoconiosis (CWP) or ‘black lung disease’ after they were exposed to dangerous dust levels.
Other invisible workplace hazards include crystalline silica, isocyanates, asbestos, acrylamides, solvents, and diesel exhaust. It’s not uncommon for a work site to have multiple risks, as well as other potential health hazards in the form of excessive noise, heat, and vibration.
What are an employer’s obligations?
Australian employers are legally obliged to demonstrate a ‘duty of care’ by providing employees with a safe work environment. Where employees face one or more occupational health risk, onsite health surveillance is legally required to identify, monitor and control hazards.
Based on the site and environment, there are a number of health risks that may need to be monitored including exposure to noise, vibration, ionising radiation, solvents, fumes, dust, biological agents and other substances hazardous to health.
Risk assessments should be completed to identify exposures and specific hazardous substances to ensure suitable control and monitoring. Depending on the specifics of each work environment, Occupational and Environmental Physicians work with employers to educate employers and the workforce about the potential adverse health outcomes from over exposures or exposure specific hazardous substances and exposures.
Occupational and Environmental Physicians then develop a protocol for health monitoring determining, what type of health monitoring is required, the frequency of the screening required and the type of hazardous substance health assessments that need to be completed.
Monitoring improves all workplaces
Under the legislation, a substance or condition that might negatively impact on a workers’ physical health must be managed through medical surveillance which allows for:
- Potentially excessive exposure to be identified before the worker’s health is significantly affected, preventing serious illness such as lung disease or cancer. (For example, best practice for minimising dust exposure requires Respiratory Fit Testing to determine which mask best ‘fits’ an individual’s face to provide effective PPE.)
- Feedback that leads to improvements in safe work practices. Implementing a code of practices for managing hazardous substances and increased surveillance led to the rate of worker’s compensation claims for respiratory diseases in Australia falling by almost 50% – from 143 claims per million employees to 73 – in the decade from 2000 to 2010.
The frequency of testing is determined in the protocol and takes into account the nature of the substance, the type of work being done, the level of exposure, previous health surveillance results, and the presence of any additional risk factors.
Health surveillance isn’t an alternative to implementing control measures. If monitoring indicates that a worker is showing signs of exposure to a hazardous substance or their health is being adversely affected, control measure must be reviewed in line with risk management policies and, if necessary, revised.