Smoke haze alert: Keeping your employees safe in the wake of the Australian fires

Published: 30 January 2020

Since the end of 2019, bushfires have ravaged the Australian landscape across almost all states and territories, leaving significant destruction in its path and posing a considerable risk to people’s health and wellbeing, especially those who work in outside environments.

In this article, we set out some basic steps which AMCA members can take to ensure that potential harms to the health of their employees who work outside (on construction or service / maintenance work) are minimised as much as possible.

Air quality readings

As a result of this phenomenon, the quality of the air in Victoria and NSW has become a primary concern for employers whose employees engage in work outside. The effects of this are still being experienced by people working in metropolitan and rural areas weeks later, with smoke haze, smog and smoke ash evident in the air.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors these conditions, based on the examination of a sample of air for fine pollutant particles, known collectively as “PM2.5 particles”. As a benchmark, healthy and safe (i.e. “good”) air quality readings will have less than 50 PM2.5 particles in a sample; however, in the aftermath of the bushfires – and for some weeks after – the air quality reading in Melbourne has at times been classified as “hazardous”, with a PM2.5 reading of above 200.

As this is an unprecedented health risk for employees who work outside, employers need to be well aware of the potential harms, and what you can do to minimise the risks to your employees’ health and wellbeing while on the job.

What are the potential harms?

For “healthy individuals” (i.e. those that do not suffer from a pulmonary disease and is not considered vulnerable or at-risk due to a personal attribute), working outside may have the potential to trigger a pulmonary disease (such as asthma or allergies) or at the very least, lead them to be unable to work outside for some or all of their work day due to risk of extended exposure.

For “sensitive individuals” (i.e. those employees who may already suffer from a pulmonary disease, or who are elderly, pregnant or vulnerable) there is an increased likelihood that such hazardous smoke haze may force an attack, bring on breathing problems, and / or aggravate an existing disease.

How does this affect AMCA members?

As tradespeople and labourers, AMCA members’ employees are consistently – if not, always – working outside to complete their duties, whether it be construction or service / maintenance work. As employers, AMCA members also have specific statutory obligations to ensure that their employees have a safe working environment which is not harmful to their health or wellbeing, and this includes in any spaces where AMCA members maintain management or control of, for the purposes of work-related activities.

Therefore, it is very important to AMCA that members are taking extra care during this time to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their employees where completing both outdoor and indoor work.

Best practice steps for AMCA members

Because of this phenomenon, AMCA is putting a strong emphasis on ensuring its members are working to best-practice standards in this space.

To reflect this, we have prepared two protocols – one for indoor work and one for outdoor work – which contain appropriate procedures when dealing with hazardous smoke haze, smog or smoke ash. These procedures are set in line with the EPA’s air quality readings, and can be easily implemented into AMCA members’ businesses to protect against harms in the future.

In summary, some of the practical steps outlined in the two protocols that businesses can take include:

  • creating an open dialogue between members and their employees during “toolbox talks” to help identify if any employees have a respiratory illness, or could be classed as a sensitive individual;
  • using P2 masks (with vents) for any outdoor tasks where the air quality is classified as “very poor” or worse;
  • ensuring breaks are taken regularly, and in well ventilated areas;
  • minimising strenuous activities or physical exertion for outdoor tasks, especially for sensitive individuals; and / or
  • providing the option of adjusted start and finish times, to allow for work to continue when the threat to your employees’ health has dissipated or reduced to safe levels.

Members are also advised to consult the website of SafeWork Australia or their local workplace health and safety authority:

Next steps

If members would like some help in taking steps to support a safe working environment for their employees or assistance in understanding their legal obligations, please contact your local state office or email workplacerelations@amca.com.au.