Government and WHS regulators sound caution on outdoor air pollution

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Tuesday, 7 January, 2020 - 16:15
Industry news
National News

Federal and State Governments, as well as WHS regulators, recently issued warnings to employers about the hazardous risks of poor outdoor air quality as a result of bushfire smoke and airborne dust.

Parts of Australia have experienced major bushfires over recent weeks, and Safe Work Australia said workplaces must have measures in place to protect worker health and safety and manage the risks of working outdoors.

It is important to consider the geographic location of workplaces, and if they are in close proximity to a dust storm or smoke from bushfires, Safe Work Australia said to check local air quality index to obtain the latest health advice.

State and territories have primary responsibility for monitoring and managing air quality in their jurisdictions, and local environmental agencies and WHS authorities can be contacted for specific guidance and suggested actions.

Safe Work Australia’s working outside page has more information on how to identify and manage risks of air pollution.

With hot weather set to continue over the coming weeks, Federal and State Governments have issued multiple health alerts about the risks of bushfire smoke.

The Federal Department of Health issued a health alert over bushfire smoke while the NSW Department of Health also advised caution about air pollution and hot weather.

Director of Environmental Health, Dr Richard Broome said the combined effects of bushfire smoke and extreme temperatures have potential to cause severe illness.

“Minimising physical activity, staying indoors and keeping well hydrated are important ways to reduce the risk of heat and smoke-related illness,” he said.

“People with breathing conditions should avoid outdoor physical activity when there’s smoke around and people with asthma should also follow their asthma action plan and carry their relieving medication with them.

“Heat puts lot of strain on the body and can cause dehydration, heat stress and heatstroke. It can also make underlying conditions worse.”

The ACT Health Directorate also issued a warning about heavy smoke and urged caution as conditions may worsen with hot temperatures forecast.

“We are strongly advising people who are sensitive to smoke, especially those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions, to take extra care during these conditions,” said ACT Acting Chief Health Officer, Dr Paul Dugdale.

“This includes remaining indoors where possible, with windows and doors closed, and not using evaporative air conditioners which draw air into the house from outside,” he said.

Dugdale said people who are sensitive to smoke and air pollution can be more vulnerable to heat-related illness as well, so staying hydrated was important.

“As people who are sensitive to smoke and air pollution can also be more vulnerable to heat-related illness, it is vital to stay hydrated and cool,” he said.

Safe Work Australia said workplaces must have measures in place to manage the risks to health and safety caused by working outdoors when air quality is reduced, including:

  • 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 masks.