How Health Surveillance Can Keep Australian Workers Safe

Health surveillance is simple. It means to monitor the health of a person over a period of time when that person is in an environment that could potentially damage them. Health checks vary between environments and they depend largely on the type of toxin or pollutant that is in a particular environment. For instance, noise exposure, vibration, ionising radiation, solvents fumes, dust and other biological agents that can or may cause toxicity need to be monitored.

Health Surveillance is often a legal requirement in a workplace where an employee is exposed to one or more of these elements.

Think of the recent TV show by HBO, based on the real-life disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Without adequate health surveillance, we risk grave consequences and mass illness. We have hopefully learned some valuable lessons from these historical catastrophes.

Under legislation, all Health Surveillance records will be retained for a minimum of 30 years with reports provided in accordance with legislative requirements.

How do we utilise Health Surveillance in the workplace?

Risk-based Health Surveillance, sometimes including biological monitoring, assesses possible health effects that may arise if occupational exposures exceed accepted or adopted exposure standards. It is imperative so that the employee is not put to risk, in which it may lead them to harm. The simple precaution monitors and detects any potential illness in their workers. The premise being early intervention. The emphasis also spans to checking whether their health surveillance is actually working too- and is a legal requirement of the state.


When should Health Surveillance be provided?

If there is a level of exposure that is or may be significant to an employee, then health surveillance should be conducted. This threat is detected by a risk assessment. Not all exposures are harmful, so other forms of management can be used from the Hierarchy of Controls. These include elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Occupational Physicians are there to assess risk. They have the skills and expertise to monitor whether a pollutant is risky business. They also only recommend customised health surveillance once a thorough work assessment has taken place.

We Can Customise Health Surveillance

Health Surveillance may include a history, a physical examination, and often assessment of tests such as blood or urine samples, spirometry, or X-rays. These tests are only performed where there is such a need.

Sometimes we, as Occupational Health Physicians, assess an environment, we find that some of the routine tests are not needed. There have also been incidences where the tests administered are incorrect and totally unnecessary. These tests can also potentially miss any physiological changes that are indicative of harm or toxicity, meaning a person can become unwell from repeated exposure.

Is Health Surveillance only required for Hazardous Substances listed in Australian legislation?

The Commonwealth and State Workplace Health legislation outlines the mandatory substances only, and the number of substances are about to increase. There are also a number of other substances that have an effect on health that should be monitored for. As new substances are being created, we need to monitor the impact these have on people. With research, comes prevention. Occupational health physicians can assess environments for potential hazardous and carcinogenic substances that will protect your workplace from actual harm.

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