Mobile Phones

There can be issues surrounding the use of mobile phones, so how should reps deal with this potential hazard in the workplace?

Mobile phones are extremely common in Australia generally and increasingly in the working environment. It is estimated that there were almost 22 million of them in 2007 - and no doubt this number has increased, with many people having two (a personal and 'work' mobile). However, there is ongoing concern over their safety. OHS reps need to know what the issues surrounding the use of mobile phones are and how to deal with this potential hazard in the workplace.
There are a number of issues of relevance to union members and health and safety representatives connected with mobile phones. These are:
  • health risks,
  • driving,
  • personal protection, and
  • stress.

(see more information on potential health risks, below)

Action Plan for Health and Safety Representatives

As with other hazards, the objective should be to eliminate or reduce the risk as much as possible. This means controlling it at the source. If the use of mobile phones is not necessary, then this should be avoided. If it is necessary then the easiest way to reduce any possible risk is to have the radiation source as far away from the brain as possible, and even a few centimetres can drastically reduce exposure levels.

As rep, you should discuss the following with the employer:

  • Developing a policy that mobile phones are not used excessively and that where landlines are available, they should be used. In addition to reducing the level of use of mobiles, the policy should also deal with the issue of ensuring that mobile phone use does not place others at risk. Just as it is illegal to drive a car and speak on a mobile because the driver can be distracted, the employer needs to ensure that the company has a clear policy about when mobile phones are NOT to be used - eg while operating machinery, driving forklifts or other vehicles and so on.
  • The provision of phone cards/chargecards so that employees can make work calls from a client's premises or call boxes.
  • Introducing pagers instead of mobile phones.
  • Checking the "specific absorption rate" (SAR) and the output values, which are given for each mobile, before purchasing the mobile phones for use by employees, and purchasing those with the lowest values. If this information cannot be found, then the phone should not be purchased. The SAR value reflects the rate at which radiation from the handset is absorbed by the body.
  • Providing hand-free kits (ie with ear pieces). The Australian Consumers Association has found that hand-free sets reduce the effects of radiation by 94%.

    In using hand-free kits, the Electromagnetic Radiation Association of Australia (EMRAA) recommends that when making calls using the kits, the phone should be kept in a bag or on a table to keep it away from the body. If the phone is kept on a belt or in a pocket between calls, it may irradiate internal organs. It is also recommended that the mobile phone point downwards (so that the hands-free cord does not run next to the antenna) and kept away from the body during calls.

Talk to your members about:

  • radiation, mobile phones and the possible health and safety effects
  • what they can do to reduce exposure by:
    • only using a mobile phone when it is necessary to do so and for no longer than is necessary;
    • using a landline phone or pager wherever possible, including for retrieving voicemail messages;
    • trying to reduce the number of calls received by not making their mobile phone number freely available. Where practicable, telling callers they will phone them back from base, where the call can be longer;
    • ensuring the antenna on the mobile is fully extended;
    • avoiding contact with the phone or aerial when making a call
    • avoiding contact with the body at all times as the phone emits radiation when switched on, even when no call is being made;
    • using a hands-free kit at all times, making sure that the phone itself is not in contact with the body;
    • avoiding making calls where background noise is high
  • other important safety issues:
    • Minimising use when driving a motor vehicle - using a mobile can affect vehicle handling and cause a driver to be distracted;
    • Not using mobile phones in hospitals and aircraft as their use may interfere with equipment;
    • Not using mobile phones in potentially explosive atmospheres, including blasting operations, fuelling areas such as petrol stations, and in a number of manufacturing situations.

Legal Standards

Mobile phones must comply with Australian Communications Authority (ACA) standards that limit the amount of power the phone can emit. These standards are largely based on the heating effects of radio waves and are consistent with guidelines recommended by the International Commission on Non-Ionisng Radiation Protection. As noted elsewhere, however, the controversy regarding the health effects of EMRs is about the non-heating effects.

The standards apply to all mobile phone handsets, cordless phone handsets and cradles, satellite phone handsets and mobile phone towers and base stations. It is not compulsory for every mobile phone sold to have details of radiowave output, however, although this was a recommendation from both the ACA and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). Unfortunately, some companies make it extremely difficult to find out what these are. Consumer pressure may lead to companies to automatically provide these details at time of sale.

The employer has a duty under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act (2004) to provide and maintain for employees, as far as practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This includes providing safe plant, a safe system of work, information, training, supervision, and where appropriate personal protective equipment. The employer also has the duty to monitor conditions at the workplace and to monitor the health and safety of employees.

What are the health effects of Mobile Phones?

Concerns about mobile phones have been around since the mid 1990s when there were a number of cases of brain cancer which were linked in the press to the excessive use of mobile phones.

Mobile phones emit and receive low level microwave radiation. The levels comply with Australian exposure limits and governments claim there is no conclusive evidence that they pose a significant cancer risk to humans. Nevertheless, there is evidence of risk from a number of experiments that have taken place on animals. Proper testing of health risks has not yet taken place. In April 1999 the WHO announced a $6 million study of 3000 people to ascertain whether there is any evidence either way. In 2001 there was a Senate Inquiry into the effects of mobile phones.

A UK government study published in May 2000, indicated that there was no conclusive proof of brain cancer or memory loss, although mobile phones can lead to a small warming of the brain which might have unknown long-term effects. The report indicated that children were likely to be most at risk and should be discouraged from using mobile phones. As a result, the UK government prepared a leaflet, now given out with every phone sold, advising users to keep calls brief and to discourage children from using mobile phones except in emergencies.

In September 2001, a further study using analogue phones showed that use of mobile phones for up to 10 years increased the risk of brain cancer by 26%. For use over 10 years, the risk was increased by 77%. A  2002 Swedish study, also found that analogue phone users had an increased risk of developing a brain tumour - but that the increased risk was much lower than the earlier study.

Digital phones have generally replaced analogue phones in Australia. These emit lower levels of radiation, but because the radiation is pulsed, it is possible that it may be equally or more damaging. A study carried out by the Adelaide Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science tested whether exposure to digital mobile phone emissions increased tumours in 1600 cancer-prone and normal mice. The findings, reported in August 2002, were that there were no significant increases in any tumours in the mice at any of the exposure levels.

Further, a study done by the National Research Council in Bologna, Italy reported in the October 2002 New Scientist magazine suggests radio waves from mobile phones could promote the growth of tumours. It seems that the radiation makes tumours grow more aggressively by initially killing off cancer cells! At first leukaemia cells exposed to radiation died, but after 48 hours the apparently lethal effect of the radiation went into reverse. Rather than more cells dying, the researchers found that a survival mechanism kicked in. Three genes that trigger cells to multiply were turned on in a high proportion of the surviving cells, making them replicate ferociously. The cancer, although briefly beaten back, had become more aggressive.

Review of research finds mobile phone use linked to increases in brain cancers (May 2007)

Researchers from the Sweden and the US analysed 14 studies and found that use of mobile phones for periods of longer than 10 years give a consistent pattern of an increased risk for two types of brain tumours: acoustic neuroma and glioma. One study was of limited value due to methodological shortcomings, but 9 of the 13 others supported an increased risk. The researchers said that these results are of biological relevance because the highest risk was found for tumours in the most exposed area of the brain using a latency period which is relevant to the development of a tumour, but there is no indication of at what stage it begins.
Long-term use of cellular phones and brain tumours - increased risk associated with use for > 10 years [abstract] Lennart O Hardell 1, Michael Carlberg, Fredrik Söderqvist, Kjell Hansson Mild and Lloyd L Morgan OEM Online (Source: OHS Alert)

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May 2013

An article in Microwave News reports on a study from the U.K. which they say adds support to the still controversial proposition that long-term use of a cell phone increases the risk of developing acoustic neuroma, a tumour of the auditory nerve. However, no higher risk of glioma or meningioma, two types of brain cancer, was observed in the study.

Women who used a mobile phone for more than ten years were two-and-half-times more likely to have an acoustic neuroma than those who never used a phone. The finding is based on a smaller number of cases than the brain tumour results but is statistically significant. The U.K. epidemiological study is the fourth to show an association between long-term use of a cell phone and acoustic neuroma. (read more).

Various studies have associated the use of mobile phones with:

  • headaches
  • tingling sensation in the head
  • heat or pressure of the temple
  • ear ache
  • eye problems including distortion of vision
  • memory loss
  • fatigue
  • blood pressure
  • brain tumours
  • DNA damage
  • Changes to size, shape and growth of cells
  • Lymphomas
  • Changes in the brain's electrical activity
  • Sleep problems
  • Learning problems
  • Breaches of the blood-brain barrier (connected with diseases such as Alzheimer's)

Phone manufacturers themselves are concerned about the possibility of a link with ill-health being shown in the future and a number of patents have recently been taken out on ideas which would reduce or block radiation outputs - this is despite claims that radiation from mobile phones does not affect peoples' health. There is a view that these may have little practical effect, as the phone reacts to its signal being blocked by increasing its output.

ARPANSA (the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency), however, maintains the position that 'there is no clear evidence in the existing scientific literature that the use of mobile telephones poses a long-term public health hazard (although the possibility of a small risk cannot be ruled out)' (Read the ARPANSA information on Mobile Phones).

Other problems associated with the use of mobile phones


The links between using a mobile phone when driving and road accidents is clear. A driver's attention is needed at all times. It is illegal in Australia to use a mobile phone when driving, unless it is a hands-free phone.

A study by the Canadian Transport Authority, however, shows that using a hands-free phone behind the wheel is as distracting as holding the phone, with drivers slowing while dialling or talking, swerving in and out of their lane, and having trouble remembering signs.

A more recent Australian (Griffith University) study supports these findings. The November 2002 study undertaken in real road conditions showed that drivers using hands-free mobile phones had problems manoeuvring and controlling the car, approaching a stationary vehicle at a traffic light, and avoiding obstacles.

What about cordless phones?

Questions over the safety of mobile phones have inevitably led to questions over the safety of cordless phones. Like mobile phones, cordless phones use radio signals to communicate with their base station. With cordless phones however, the base station, normally the handset cradle, is usually only metres away. The signals sent by cordless phones are therefore much weaker than those sent by mobile phones.

The power radiated by cordless phones is only 8% of that from mobile phones. Therefore, it follows that if there is any risk to health from cordless phones, it will be substantially less than that from mobile phones.

See Also:

  • A Factsheet from NSW WorkCover: Using Mobile Phones Safely suggesting workers should be encouraged to limit their use of hand-held phones (to reduce exposure to radiation), and warned of the risks of using hands-free phones while operating vehicles.
  • Work Safe WA has an FAQ page on Mobile phones
  • The US National Cancer Institute: Cell phones and Cancer which has a review of research and discusses why there is concern,
  • A policy on the Safe use of mobile phones [pdf] from the University of Wollongong OHS site for internal use - reps may find this a useful resource when involved in negotiations on their own workplace policy.

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Last amended June 2015