Managing bushfire smoke health risks when working outdoors

Monday, 27 January, 2020

Managing bushfire smoke health risks when working outdoors

Bushfire smoke is a mixture of airborne particles, gases and water vapour that can adversely impact the health of anyone who is exposed to it. Exposure to airborne particles in smoke may cause coughing, shortness of breath and respiratory irritation, as some particles are small enough to get into the throat and lungs. Those with asthma or heart or lung conditions could find their conditions worsened by exposure. Workplaces are urged to review their first aid arrangements to ensure that a suitable response is ready for employees impacted by bushfire smoke.

People working outdoors in areas impacted by bushfire smoke are advised to monitor the EPA AirWatch website, to determine the air quality in a particular area within Victoria. For those who do not have access to EPA AirWatch, the amount of smoke in the air can be assessed by the visibility of nearby landmarks. Landmark visibility of 20 km or more indicates a good air quality rating, with no respiratory protective equipment required. Landmarks that are visible from a distance of 10 km indicate a moderate air quality rating, whereas a poor air quality rating occurs when landmarks 5 km away are no longer visible. When landmarks 1.5 km away are no longer visible, the air quality rating is very poor, dusty or smoky. Those exposed to very poor air quality could experience coughing and shortness of breath, with anyone sensitive to bushfire smoke urged to avoid being outdoors if possible. When landmarks less than 1.5 km away are no longer visible, the air quality rating is considered to be hazardous. People exposed to hazardous, extremely dusty or smoky air quality should avoid working outdoors and ensure that their P2 mask fits well to achieve an airtight seal. 

Employees sensitive to bushfire smoke should initiate their personal treatment plan and review it with a medical practitioner. Employees concerned about their symptoms should call their doctor or call Nurse on Call on 1300 606 024. Those experiencing wheezing, chest tightness or difficulty breathing should seek urgent medical attention. Respiratory protective equipment is the lowest level of risk control. Those particularly sensitive to bushfire smoke include children younger than 14, people older than 65, people with heart and lung conditions (including asthma), and pregnant women. Employers must control the risk of exposure to smoke by avoiding outdoor work where possible, particularly on days where the air quality rating is poor, very poor or hazardous. Paper dust masks, handkerchiefs or bandanas should not be used, as they do not filter out the particles from bushfire smoke or provide protection against health risks.

When worn in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions, P2 (N95) face masks can filter out fine particulate matter, but they can be hot and uncomfortable and make it difficult for wearers to breathe normally. Masks not worn properly or loaded up with particles from extended use are less effective. The mask must fit the wearer securely for an airtight seal; facial hair will prevent an airtight seal from being achieved. For employees with facial hair, employers should review work requirements to determine if working outdoors is necessary; where outdoor work cannot be avoided, time spent outdoors should be minimised.

Image credit: © Ni

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