31 January 2020 posted by Nadine Neate

Bushfire smoke and air quality: How bad is too bad for workers?

The bushfires that are currently sweeping across our country are impacting many people, both directly and indirectly. Even those who are not in the direct path of the fires are still contending with a variety of environmental effects, particularly poor air quality.

We’ve heard from a lot of employers who are worried about how smoky conditions might impact their staff but are unsure what to do about it. This is a new issue for many people, so a significant number of businesses have no air quality policy in place and insufficient measures to address it.

To help guide employers in their response to these conditions, we’ve developed a FREE Air Quality Policy 2020 for Australian businesses. This will help you understand your responsibilities, protect your workers, reduce the financial and productivity costs of preventable employee sick leave, and continue to operate safely.

In the meantime, here’s some more information to help you understand air quality and the effects it can have on workers.

What is air quality?

Air quality refers to the purity or level of pollutants in the air within a region.

Australia has a National Clean Air Agreement that details the legal obligations and responsibilities of Australian states and territories with regard to air quality, and monitoring and reporting requirements are a key part of this. In Australia, air quality is determined by a scale called the AQI (Air Quality Index) that measures air pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, photochemical oxidants, sulfur dioxide, lead and particles.

Australia usually has good air quality when compared to many other countries. However, in conditions such as the current bushfires, the volume of smoke in the atmosphere compromises air quality significantly. A recent reading in Canberra measured the air quality in that region at more than 22 times the hazardous rating.

What are the health impacts of poor air quality?

Bushfire smoke contains tiny particles, classed as PM2.5, which means particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. These particles irritate the respiratory system and can travel deep into the lungs and bloodstream.

Many people can tolerate short-term exposure to air pollution and only experience minor symptoms such as a sore throat or itchy eyes. However, smoke can exacerbate existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, and even trigger heart attacks or strokes in vulnerable people. For more information, you can read the AMA (Australian Medical Association) statement on the health effects of bushfires here.

Do employers have legal obligations relating to air quality?

Employers have obligations relating to air quality under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011. These obligations relate to the responsibility that employers have to provide a safe working environment for their employees so far as is reasonably practicable. Each Australian state and territory differs in their WHS laws, so it’s best to check with specific state regulators for more region-specific information (see below).

What can employers do to protect their employees during poor air conditions?

Employers can take certain measures to ensure that they’re minimising harmful impacts of poor air quality. These include:

  • Making sure you’re aware of the current health status of your employees, including any pre-existing conditions they may have
  • Working with property managers to ensure facilities are maintained and operating effectively
  • Rescheduling outdoor work until conditions improve, where possible. Apart from the health risks posed to workers by these conditions, smoke can also impact visibility, which may make operating machinery or vehicles and performing other outdoor tasks more dangerous than usual
  • Conducting appropriate risk assessments and providing appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) to workers, such as P2 face masks, if work cannot be postponed. Ensuring they have a means of communicating is also important (mobile phone, radio etc.)
  • Making sure you’re aware of bushfires and weather conditions near your work environments
  • Facilitating open communication with staff to check on their wellbeing and let them know what measures are being taken to safeguard their health
  • Monitoring air quality in your area (see below)
  • Seeking specialist help if required.

How can I find out what the air quality is like in my area?

For live air quality updates in your region, click the applicable link below:

More information and resources from regulatory bodies:

Find out more

If you’d like more information on operating in conditions of poor air quality, call Recovery Partners on 1300 OHS RTW (647 789) or email admin@rrp.com to discuss how we can help.

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Disclaimer – these articles are provided to supply general safety information to people responsible for OHS in their organisation. They are general in nature and do not substitute for legal and/or professional advice. We always suggest that organisations obtain information specific to their needs. Additional information can be found at www.workcover.nsw.au