As bushfires continue to affect communities across Australia, employers are being advised by Comcare to ensure they are aware of their obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, and the Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011. During periods of elevated smoke, employers should have measures in place to protect worker health and safety, and ensure they provide safe working environments indoors and outdoors. Employers should work with their property management, such as building landlords, to monitor the air quality of their buildings and workplaces.
Employers are also being advised to act if the air quality is not within the acceptable levels, and to keep staff informed of the measures taken. Those in affected areas are advised to consider the geographic location of their workplaces; those in close proximity to a dust storm or smoke from bushfires should check their local air quality index to obtain health advice. States and territories are responsible for monitoring and managing air quality in their jurisdictions, and specific guidance and suggested plans are available from relevant work health and safety (WHS) authorities.
Other federal and state bodies have also issued advice in light of the impact of bushfires on air quality. The Commonwealth Department of Health, for example, has advised that “The best way to reduce exposure to smoke is to stay indoors with the doors and windows shut. Air conditioning can also help to filter particles from indoor air.” Employers are also being advised to ensure that outdoor or field work is rescheduled until conditions (such as visibility and air quality) improve. Those in outdoor working environments should undertake the appropriate risk assessments prior to commencing work, and use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Workers required to work alone, remotely or in an isolated place should always have an effective means of communication, while employers should remain aware of any bushfires near proposed work area(s), and advise employees accordingly. Employers should also monitor the outdoor air quality levels via the appropriate state and territory authority, and access information on particulate matter relevant to elevated smoke levels, such as via New South Wales Health (NSW Health) and Australian Capital Territory Health (ACT Health).
With bushfires affecting many areas across Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews declared a State of Disaster on 3 January for parts of the state for the seven days following, as conditions were expected to deteriorate. The declaration was intended to give the Victorian Government the powers and resources needed to keep Victorians safe, and is made when the Premier agrees there is an emergency that constitutes, or is likely to constitute, a significant and widespread danger to life or property. This is the first time such powers have been used since they were included in the Emergency Management Act 1986, following the 2009 Victorian bushfires.
The declaration applied to the local government areas of East Gippsland Shore, Mansfield Shire, Wellington Shire, Wangaratta Rural Shire, Towong Shire and Alpine Shire, and Mount Buller, Mount Hotham, Falls Creek and Mount Stirling Alpine Resorts. People in the affected areas must follow advice from emergency services, and should monitor advice and warnings at emergency.vic.gov.au.
As parts of Australia experience a significant decline in air quality due to bushfire smoke and airborne dust, those in affected areas are at risk of exposure to air pollution. Safe Work Australia has guides to working in air pollution and near bushfires on its website.
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