Emerging and re-emerging WHS risks – the next asbestos?

Recent incidents in which individuals have been exposed to potentially-harmful substances have highlighted the need for businesses to manage the risks arising from PFAS, inhalable dust and asbestos.

While the WHS laws require businesses to assess and control the potential risks associated with hazardous substances, this process can be challenging in circumstances where the scientific and medical knowledge surrounding a particular substance is still emerging.

KEY TAKE-OUTS

  1. PFAS
    A spill of potentially toxic firefighting foam at Brisbane Airport earlier this month has prompted the Commonwealth Government to announce it is considering phasing out chemicals containing perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). This follows similar bans announced recently in Queensland and South Australia.

    PFOS and PFOA are subsets of the man-made compounds generically known as per‑ and poly- fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals have been used in Australia and overseas in firefighting foams, as well as in the manufacture of household products such as non-stick cookware, fabric, furniture, carpet-stain remover and waterproof clothing.

    Concerns about the use of PFAS-based products have prompted a number of state and federal investigations. Despite the inconsistency of evidence linking PFAS to adverse health effects, exposure to PFAS may prompt fear and stress in workers. Businesses must therefore implement strategies to manage both the potential physical and psychological risks arising from these substances.
     
  2. Black Lung

    In February this year the first case in four decades of coal workers' pneumoconiosis, or "Black Lung", was identified in NSW.

    Black Lung is caused by inhaling coal dust. The risk of developing this disease can extend beyond mine workers to any persons who work at coal ports and coal fired power stations.

    Although Black Lung was thought to be largely eliminated through a combination of mandatory dust monitoring and health and environmental regulation, its recent re‑emergence means businesses will need to be proactive in identifying measures to control this disease and keep up to date with new laws that are being developed in this regard.

    Earlier this year the Queensland Government introduced new regulations to protect miners from Black Lung following 20 reported cases of Black Lung in Queensland. The Queensland Parliament's Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis Select Committee is continuing to inquire into the "efficacy and efficiency of adopting methodologies and processes for respirable dust measurement and mitigation, including monitoring regimes, engineering measures, personal protective equipment, statutory requirements, and industry policies and practices, including practices in jurisdictions with similar industries".
     
  3. Asbestos Act

    The potential health risks arising from exposure to asbestos have been on the radar of WHS regulators for some time. Despite this, a recent report from the NSW Ombudsman found that methods for dealing with asbestos are disjointed, confusing and ad hoc.

    The report calls on the NSW Government to introduce "a separate Asbestos Act" to address gaps in the current legislation.

    A wide range of businesses are potentially impacted by the presence of asbestos in the workplace and will need to be on the lookout for new laws which dictate how asbestos related risks should be controlled.