For several weeks, smoke from bushfires has blanketed Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and other communities, so much so that the smoke in Sydney was 12 times over the threshold for ‘hazardous’ air quality at one stage1
Some organisations, such as the Department of Home Affairs, sent workers home in full or part because of bushfire smoke, and health experts are warning that the ramifications from the unprecedented levels of bushfire smoke exposure won’t be known for years.
Staff who may be struggling to work in the heavy smoke may also be entitled to take personal leave, according to Employsure’s senior adviser, Erin Gaffney.
“An individual employee can choose to go home if they feel too unwell to work because of the smoke. But, they would have to use their paid personal leave entitlement. And an employer is entitled to request evidence, like a medical certificate,” she said.
It’s safe to say that exposure to bushfire smoke should be a cause for concern for employers and workplace health and safety practitioners. Given that the blankets of smoke that have enveloped Australia is unprecedented, what basic precautions can businesses take to protect their employees exposed to the smoke?
“You can’t predict where the smoke is going to be or for how long it’s going to stay around, but you do have options regarding your work and your workers”, Employsure’s WHS expert Larry Drewsen says.
“Let’s say that outside, it seems quite smoky. The first thing I’d do is check the air pollution levels. For instance, the NSW Government has an air quality monitor service [link].
“If it indicates a dangerous level of smoke, if you can, reschedule any outside work. If you can’t, then you should consider supplying workers with smoke-protective clothing, such as an appropriate respirator and eye protection. Also, if workers are working alone or remotely, make sure they can readily communicate with their manager in case they begin to suffer from the effects of smoke exposure.”
Mr Drewsen is eager to add that, if you do purchase respirators to protect your workers, make sure you purchase the correct type.
“Surgical masks, or other cloth masks that may have seen people wearing around the city, aren’t going to cut it,” Mr Drewsen says.
“You need P2 masks. These masks are the most capable of protecting from the dangerous, very fine air particles in the air when properly worn. To be fully effective you must get them fitted. If they don’t form a seal, they don’t work as the outside air can still get through, unfiltered.”
While many workers in cities are office workers or work indoors, Mr Drewsen says that they should still be protected from the smoke.
“All offices or indoor workplaces should have air ventilation. The majority have air conditioning,” Mr Drewsen says.
“This doesn’t mean that the indoor air quality can remain unaffected by air quality outdoors. Employers should monitor the air quality, or cooperate with property management or their landlords to do so.”
In case the smoke is too much for employees to work – inside or outside – safely, what does Mr Drewsen recommend as appropriate action?
“Prolonged exposure to smoke can be quite detrimental to anyone’s health. If you don’t feel it’s safe, but I’d begin to look at standing down your employees, making sure you have the legal grounds to do so, or asking them to work from home,” Mr Drewsen says.