ACTU position

The ACTU supports Option 2 for the following reasons:

  • Reduction of burden of disease
  • As a consequence of the above, a reduction in the burden borne by workers and the community due to work related ill health. The ACTU notes that the burden borne by workers has in fact been underestimated in the RIS when studies have shown workers bear up to 77% of the cost of work-related injury and disease to the Australian economy[1] – more than $540 million a year. 
  • Improvements in the quality of life of workers and their families
  • Update out of date and currently non-protective exposure standards for hazardous substances
  • Provide clear obligations for PCBUs/employers
  • Provide clarity to health and safety regulators on what constitutes compliance
  • Provides the ability to fast track previously ignored or emerging health hazards e.g. exposures to diesel fumes
  • Potentially align exposures standards with overseas best practice.

The ACTU does not support the status quo, Option 1, as it has failed to provide the level of protection that Australian H&S laws are designed to provide. The ACTU has consistently opposed the adoption of advisory standards[2] and therefore does not support Option 3, a self-regulation model with an advisory standard. The reasons for our position include:

  • Strong feedback from affiliates that WES must be mandatory to ensure workplace safety
  • That advisory standards make it harder for all PCBUs, including small/medium sized, to know they are complying [the 2004 Maxwell Review in Victoria clearly outlined the reasons why business likes to know what compliance looks like] 
  • The high cost burden to workers of work-related injury or disease
  • Advisory standards fail to provide clear advice to workers and their HSRs
  • Option 3 would implement a dangerous policy position that if compliance is not achieved then the decisions made to improve health and safety are incorrect and the standards applied by law must be lowered – this is an approach designed to increase the risks faced by workers
  • Any other option may lead to further variation across jurisdiction, as individual state regulators would be likely to adopt selected mandatory standards or maintain the current WES as mandatory
  • Other options would create further potential for lack of compliance as WES would not have any regulatory status. Regulators will need considerable effort deciding on what is or is not compliance and any voluntary health-based standard [which are supported by the ACTU] would effectively become a pragmatic standard
  • The introduction of a voluntary system would devalue the exposure standards and remove the current ceiling provided by mandatory standards.

The ACTU has consistently argued that

  • Workplace Exposure Standards for Airborne Contaminants [WES] need to be updated regularly and has previously supported the fast tracking of WES
  • Action levels of 50% of WES need to be adopted in workplaces, given that WES are a statutory upper ceiling, not a definitive “safe level”.

Specific ACTU comment


[1] The Cost of Work-related Injury and Illness for Australian Employers, Workers and the Community: 2012–13

[2]Discussion Paper: The role of chemical exposure standards in work health and safety laws: Comment ACTU December 2015