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Exposure to smoke pollution from bushfires

Smoke pollution from bushfires poses hazards to people from smoke inhalation, eye irritation and reduced visibility that may affect the way work is carried out.

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.

What do I need to do if my work is affected by bushfire smoke?

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.

How can I identify the hazard posed by bushfire smoke?

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.

What do I need to do to control the risks to health and safety?

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:

  • Avoid outdoor work on days where the air quality rating is hazardous (where practicable). Consider rescheduling work until conditions improve.
  • Where outdoor work cannot be avoided, consider ways of minimising the time spent doing moderate to heavy physical activity and provide rest breaks.
  • Face masks can filter out fine smoke particles and may be used to reduce exposure to smoke. Face masks should be at least P2-rated and correctly fitted. However face masks are the lowest type of risk control and can be very hot and uncomfortable. 
  • Review first aid arrangements to determine if a suitable response is available for workers impacted by bushfire smoke.

Most State and Territory workplace health and safety authorities affected by bushfire smoke have developed guidance to help people to: 

  • Assess risks to health and safety  
  • Mitigate the risks associated with bushfire smoke for outdoor work activities 
  • Comply with health and safety obligations.

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.

A last word

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.

To find out more, contact HIA's Building Services team.

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