People have been practicing the fundamentals of occupational hygiene in Australia for well over 100 years. As industrialisation progressed through the 1900s, so did our understanding in worker health and understanding the hazards, diseases and injuries workers often faced. Workers became more vocal in rejecting unacceptable working conditions and the prevention of damage to workers by accident or industrial disease. 

Here are a few critical milestones in the history of occupational hygiene:

  • 1894: Australia’s first-ever occupational health inspector appointed in South Australia
  • 1921: Division of Industrial Hygiene is established
  • 1942: National Health and Medical Research Council established
  • 1985: National Occupational Health and Safety Commission established. 

Research around occupational health was being undertaken in Australia throughout the 1900s, with the early precursors to Silicosis in miners detected as early as 1911 in Western Australia. In 1919 and 1920 miners went on strike to protest against their exposure to harmful dusts, which was instrumental in the development of unions and subsequent drafting of government health policies to protect worker health. 

Employers, employees and governments today have a much greater understanding of the potential health impacts of a workplace, with the field of occupational hygiene continues to develop with ongoing changes to legislation, standards, and measurement methods. Interestingly, workplace health issues from the early 20th century continue to be faced in the current day. 

We’ve recently discovered two articles from The Queensland Industrial Gazette in the GCG archives, dated December 1922 and January 1925, which provide a unique snapshot of the occupational hygiene industry at that time. The articles discuss the importance of ventilation, the use of artificial and natural illumination, and the safe management of poisons – all of which are topics relevant to occupational hygiene in today’s workplace.

Occupational hygiene, as a discipline and profession, only provides values if it helps to achieve safer and healthier workplaces. As technology advances and methods of measurement become increasingly sophisticated, methods such as real-time monitoring are now readily available but becoming regular practice. Even with the continued evolution of this important field over the last one hundred years, one factor remains the same – at the end of the day, our fundamental purpose is to keep workers safe. 


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