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Bushfire smoke is a mixture of water vapour, very fine particles and gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides. These particles and gases are known to irritate the eyes and respiratory system and may cause respiratory irritation symptoms such as chest tightness, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and dizziness.
Depending on the level of smoke some workers who work outdoors may experience these effects.
Older workers and people who have pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, bronchitis or other respiratory disorders or cardiovascular conditions, may be more sensitive to smoke or have their conditions aggravated by the exposure.
Each State and Territory has workplace health and safety laws that impose duties on employers, PCBUs and people in control of construction sites to ensure the health and safety of workers by eliminating or minimising risks to health and safety as far as is reasonably practicable.
This means that builders will need to assess the risks to their worker’s health and safety from bushfire smoke and take reasonable steps to protect them, taking into account their pre-existing conditions, if known.
The EPA or Health Department in states and territories publishes air quality information regularly. This is indicated as an air quality number or level, which takes into account a number of air pollutants, including smoke particles. As the air quality number increases, so does air pollution and risk to human health.
The EPA websites below should be considered the first source of information to identify the air quality level at your location:
In addition to the hazard posed by smoke inhalation there may be other hazards that arise from the smoke that you will need to consider such as impaired vision due to eye irritation and reduced visibility.
Eliminating exposure to smoke would be the best protection if it were possible to do so. Other measures to manage the risks to health when air quality is reduced by bushfire smoke, will depend on the air quality level.
Some of the measures that may be considered include:
Most State and Territory workplace health and safety authorities affected by bushfire smoke have developed guidance to help people to:
You should seek, obtain and follow the information and guidance that is available from your local workplace health and safety authority. Their websites are:
EPAs and Health Departments may also provide advice and guidance about the health hazards and activities that should be avoided in the prevailing conditions.
It is likely workplace health and safety regulators will take the view that employers, PCBUs and people in control of construction sites must access and apply the information on the above websites in determining the appropriate action to take to control the risks of bushfire smoke and to comply with workplace health and safety laws.
As we are coming up to another bushfire season its an important reminder to be across the rules for working on bushfire prone days and on worker safety where bushfire smoke may be present.