What to know about working in smoky conditions

Amid thick bushfire smoke in cities including Canberra and Melbourne, employers need to consider their legal obligations.

Some companies have directed their workers not to turn up in order to avoid potential occupational health and safety risks. One of which being our own Commonwealth department of home affairs, which a few weeks ago instructed staff to stay away from their offices for the next 48 hours.

Asthma suffers might be at greater risk.

Employers are likely to have up-to-date information of the health of their employees. Workers with pre-existing conditions, asthma or other respiratory disorders should have special steps implemented to protect them from the harms of smoke.

Employers should be checking up-to-date information on an environment protection authority website and on the website of Safe Work Australia.

It’s very likely law enforcers will presume the information on these websites constitute information the employer ought to have known in determining the appropriate action to take.

Although each state and territory has its own occupation health and safety laws, most are intended to harmonise together to form the so-called Model Act.

Potential Issues as a result of the air pollution.

Workers who are working outdoors in smoky conditions are significantly more likely to be subject to the harmful effects of bushfire smoke then indoor workers. These workers are more likely to experience irritation to their airways, nose and eyes. The machines employees operate could also be impacted by smoke and dust in a way could make them more dangerous, not to mention potential visibility issues.

Special measures should be taken to protect workers who work outdoors, such as providing them with face masks or rescheduling their work.

Smoke emissions from the Australian bushfires from 1 December 2019 to 4 January 2020.

Some potential things to implement that can help manage the risks to health and safety caused by working outdoors in smoky conditions include:

  • working indoors (where possible)
  • rescheduling outdoor work until conditions (e.g. visibility and air quality) improve​
  • ensuring plant is functioning correctly and has not been affected by dust or debris
  • cleaning any dust and debris off outdoor surfaces, and
  • providing personal protective equipment such as eye protection and correctly fitted, P2 rated face mask

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