International Review of Surveillance and Control of Workplace Exposures: NOHSAC Technical Report 5
The New Zealand National Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Committee (NOHSAC) and The Office of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (OASCC) (formerly NOHSC) engaged VIOSH Australia at the University of Ballarat to examine a matrix of exposure surveillance systems that focuses on eight priority occupational diseases and prepare a critical, international review of methods used for the surveillance of exposures to hazards in the workplace.
A review of exposure surveillance systems was undertaken through an examination of formal and informal literature, electronic data sources and discussion with personal contacts around the world.
There was found to be a large number of surveillance systems, addressing a broad cross-section of hazards and disease outcomes. There is an increasing number of systems having a clearly identifiable focus on exposure surveillance. These systems are, however, at various stages of development and often lack continuity. Little evidence was found that could reliably demonstrate the specific impact of exposure surveillance systems on specific exposures.
A range of information was collected about 24 exposure surveillance systems in regard to their operation and what they deliver. From the literature, four categories of work environment surveillance system have been proposed, these being i) integrated systems, ii) working conditions surveys, iii) workplace observations and OHS services data and iv) registers. All the systems reviewed require resources for initiation, implementation and operation, and the availability of these resources seems to be the key factor in determining the longevity, continuity and effectiveness of the system. The success of the systems within the countries in which the better systems originate is also heavily dependent on cultural, legal and industrial structures that enhance their operation. Australia and New Zealand are quite different to these countries of origin; politically, legally and in terms of industrial structures. In addition, these two countries have smaller, geographically more widespread populations with fewer resources. Both countries are experiencing changes to the labour market resulting in increasing numbers of smaller businesses that stretch the ability of experts and regulators to conduct comprehensive workplace visits. Availability of such resources depends on the extent to which the system is embedded in and coincident with other data collection systems in the country of operation. The significance of infrastructures within which to embed the data collection is greater where exposure databases are operated and less significant where workplace surveys are undertaken.
It is concluded that workplace surveys are more flexible and less dependent on continuous availability of resources. However, to improve the reliability and validity of the results from these surveys, validation studies in specific industries would be beneficial. The benefit of the approach to surveillance that surveys represent is reflected in their growing use, and it is possible that the growing interest and active promotion of them in Europe signals their significance in the future of work environment surveillance.
Notwithstanding these conclusions, if resources were unlimited in Australia and New Zealand, an integrated system approach to surveillance such as that of the Danish National System would be worth consideration.