Bushfires and Workplace Safety – Air Pollution Hazards

The devastating bushfires wreaking havoc around our nation have endangered countless lives in hundreds of communities. As of January, plumes of smoke haze have enveloped much of Australia, with smoke-filled winds reaching New Zealand and as far away as Peru and Argentina. NASA predicts that the bushfire is so intense and widespread the smoke may cover the entire globe. [https://www.local10.com/news/world/2020/01/14/australian-fires-to-affect-atmosphere-worldwide-nasa-scientists-say/]

Due to increased air pollution, workplaces must have measures in place to protect worker health and safety from bushfire haze and increased smoke in the air.

Haze and smoky conditions are caused by higher than normal concentrations of fine particles (under 2.5 micrometres in size) in the air. In Victoria, the Environmental Protection Agency rates air quality on a scale of Good to Hazardous. During this particularly intense bushfire season, Melbourne and suburbs have experienced periods of Poor and Very Poor air quality over the past few weeks, with the EPA declaring conditions on 3rd of January as “Hazardous.” [https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/hazardous-air-quality-to-hit-melbourne-as-smoke-blankets-city-20200103-p53okx.html]

Beyond Very Poor air quality, the EPA states “Everyone could be experiencing symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath”; especially groups of people who may be sensitive to air pollution.

Workplace impacts of Poor air quality

Dust and smoke can not only reduce air quality, but reduce visibility, build up on equipment and other work surfaces, and cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.

Workplaces must have practices and methods in place to reduce the impact of bushfire related smoke and other poor air on worker health and safety.

Measures to alleviate poor air quality may include:

  • Working indoors if it is safe and practical to do so;
  • Rescheduling work when air quality has improved;
  • Ensuring equipment is functioning correctly and is not affected by dust or debris;
  • Cleaning and maintaining equipment that has been affected;
  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as eye protection and P2 face masks.

Eliminating exposure to air pollution is the best protection, according to Safe Work Australia.

Is your workplace near bushfire areas?

If your workplace is close to bushfire areas, all employees must follow instructions or advice from emergency services and have a plan to evacuate the area if told. Workers in small groups or on their own should have a communications device (like a mobile phone) to keep in contact with others.

You should also ensure that your work does not increase the fire danger through improper handling or containment of chemicals, flammable materials, or liquids. Read our blog on storing chemicals in the workplace for further guidance. Pay extra attention to disposal of litter such as cigarette butts or combustibles.

Who should I contact if I feel work has become unsafe?

All workers have the right to cease working if conditions are unsafe. Trained Health and Safety Representatives can direct workers to stop working of air quality is too poor or appropriate measures are not being employed.

For more information, visit Safe Work Australia’s bushfire resource page. [https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/media-centre/news/bushfires-and-air-pollution]