Hazards lurk in the wake of fire
As parts of Australia continue to face devastation from bushfires, those already affected are being advised to remain vigilant, even after the fires have passed and they assess the damage and undertake clean-up and recovery work. WorkSafe Victoria — together with regulators around the country — is reminding employers and property owners to take time to assess fully the risks involved in each task before commencing activities to clean up or make repairs following damage from fire.
Some of the safety hazards that those working on fire-affected properties face include damaged and fallen trees and powerlines, and asbestos. “Cleaning up after a fire poses a set of risks that you may not be expecting,” Julie Nielsen, WorkSafe Victoria Executive Director of Health and Safety, said, “so we urge anyone who is unsure of how to handle a particular hazard to seek advice.”
Some hazards that may present after fires include: damage to internal wiring in fallen powerlines, which may be live; weakness to the limbs and trunks of trees due to heat and contact with fire; instability to certain structures — such as free-standing chimneys, concrete septic tanks and pits, underground water tanks and retaining walls — that may be at risk of collapse; biohazardous situations resultant of livestock and wildlife decomposition; and compromised LP gas tanks and cylinders.
Concerning asbestos, any fire-affected workplaces should take care to assess and mitigate risk. Asbestos was a common building material until the late 1980s, and therefore, WorkSafe Victoria has advised that if unsure about whether a building compromised by fire has asbestos present, an occupational hygienist should be engaged to inspect the site. Should it be found that asbestos is present, asbestos materials should only be removed by a licensed removalist.
Advice on the potential hazards faced by those returning to bushfire-affected properties has been issued by the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency (ASEA). “Asbestos is present in as many as 1 in 3 homes built prior to 1990,” according to ASEA, “and in natural disasters like fires formally bonded asbestos fibres can easily become loose and airborne.”
ASEA also advises that building clean-up and demolition phases are when particular caution should be practised, as this is a time when materials and debris is moved extensively. But exposure can also occur while simply inspecting a site, walking the property to assess damage, for example. Therefore, ASEA strongly recommends the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), as is outlined in this fact sheet from SafeWork New South Wales. The use of sturdy footwear, protective overalls and ‘P2 masks’ that filter out fine particles are among the PPE measures advocated.
As part of its advice, ASEA notes the following as common across all Commonwealth, state and territory responsible authorities:
- Heed all advice from emergency and clean-up personnel.
- Only enter a property once you have been advised that it is safe to do so.
- Wear a P2 mask and protective clothing (including sturdy boots and gloves) regardless of whether or not you believe asbestos may be present.
- Ensure children and animals are kept clear of the site.
- Do not bury building rubble, as it may contain hazardous materials, including asbestos.
- With ash: do not spread this around the property (nor debris) or move it extensively — especially if asbestos materials were used in the buildings — and moisten ash with water to minimise dust and keep damp; however, do not use high-pressure water sprays.
For more information on asbestos, refer to this guide from the Australian Government Department of Health or the ASEA website. Also, refer to the WHS authority website in your jurisdiction.
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