Background Flying foxes (megachiroptera) and insectivorous microbats (microchiroptera) are the known reservoirs for a range of recently emerged, highly pathogenic viruses. In Australia there is public health concern relating to bats' role as reservoirs of Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV), which has clinical features identical to classical rabies. Three deaths from ABLV have occurred in Australia. A survey was conducted to determine the frequency of bat exposures amongst adults in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales; explore reasons for handling bats; examine reported practices upon encountering injured or trapped bats or experiencing bat bites or scratches; and investigate knowledge of bat handling warnings. Methods A representative sample of 821 New South Wales adults aged 16 years and older were interviewed during May and June 2011, using a computer assisted telephone interview (CATI) method. Frequencies, proportions and statistical differences in proportion were performed. Using an alpha-value of 0.05 and power of 80%, it was calculated that a sample size of 800 was required to provide statistical significance of +/- 5% for dichotomous variables. Results One-hundred-and-twenty-seven (15.5%) respondents indicated that they had previously handled a bat, being 22% (48/218) rural and 13% (78/597) urban respondents (chi2 = 9.8, p = 0.0018). Twenty one percent of males (63/304) had handled bats compared with 12% (64/517) of females (chi2 = 10.2, p = 0.0014). Overall, 42.0% (n = 345) of respondents reported having seen or heard a warning about handling bats. If faced with an injured or trapped bat, 25% (206/821) indicated that they would handle the bat, with 17% (36/206) saying that they would use their bare hands. For minor scratches, 14% (117/821) indicated that they would ignore the injury while four respondents would ignore major scratches or bites. Conclusions Previous human-bat interactions were relatively common. Bat exposures most frequently occurred with sick or injured bats, which have the highest risk of ABLV. On encountering an injured or sick bat, potentially high risk practices were commonly reported, particularly among rural males. It is important to understand why people still handle bats despite public health warnings to inform future communication strategies.