The 2019/20 summer bushfire season started early and led to devastating fires throughout the country — especially along the eastern seaboard — that have exposed many Australian workers to hazardous air conditions. National Safety’s Editor, Dr JOSEPH BRENNAN, speaks with an air quality expert, a lawyer and our national work health and safety statutory body to gain insight into: the respiratory hazards posed; the responsibilities of and resources available to organisations; and informed projections of how these unprecedented conditions are likely to reshape the way we work, and our methods of worker protection into the future.
As Australian firefighters battled ceaselessly with the catastrophic bushfire conditions that have ravaged this country over the past several months, this fight to contain the destruction has also been accompanied by wider-spread dangers in the form of plumes of hazardous smoke that have settled across the nation’s capital cities, towns and regional centres for extended periods. To assist me in understanding the various work health and safety (WHS) implications of this — among them the numerous air pollution resources that have followed this unfolding crisis — and to clarify employer responsibility and inevitable reforms to follow this crisis, I enlisted the expert help of subject authorities across the three core, interconnecting components of this complex issue, namely: health effects, legal requirements and regulatory frameworks.
Dr Christine Cowie, a Senior Research Fellow at the UNSW South West Sydney Clinical School, was enlisted to provide the latest health advice, together with an overview of extent and emerging research in the field of air pollution caused by bushfires. Dr Cowie is an Affiliate of CAR (the Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research), which is a one-of-a-kind research centre that brings together emergent researchers from across Australia’s research universities, all of whom are studying the impacts of air pollution and new forms of energy on our health.
Andrew Rich, a Principal Lawyer within the industrial and employment law team at Slater and Gordon, provides the legal perspective, setting out the employer-responsibility parameters, and also proffering practical advice that can be used by those working in (or with workers who are working in) locations that have been affected by bushfire-caused air quality decline. Finally, Michelle Baxter, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Safe Work Australia (SWA) — Australia’s government WHS statutory body, directs me to the latest resources and sets the scoping initiatives that are already underway to ensure we are all better prepared for the start of the next bushfire season later this year.
“In Sydney and other major cities, air pollution readings for fine particulate matter (PM2.5) over the last few months have often exceeded Australian standards and have been some of the highest levels recorded in Australia,” Dr Cowie told me. “In the past, exceedances (calculated using 24 h averages) of the guidelines in NSW have occurred during bushfires, back-burning events or dust storm episodes, which have resulted in spikes in PM2.5 readings over one to a few days. In this last summer season, many parts of NSW and other areas in Australia have experienced poor to hazardous levels of PM2.5 over many days, and even weeks of exposure. In addition, at times there have been extremely high hourly maximum readings of PM2.5.”
Dr Cowie explains that the health “effects attributed to short-term exposures to bushfire smoke include increased respiratory symptoms such as asthma, cough, wheeze, shortness of breath, as well as irritation to eyes and throats”. When it comes to the effects of more medium-term exposure to bushfire smoke of weeks to a few months, such as we have seen this summer, these “are less known and have been little studied”. To set out in the first instance the known effects of short-term exposure to particulate matter from bushfire smoke, Dr Cowie informs me that studies conducted in Sydney and elsewhere across Australia have found that “elevated levels were associated with an increase in presentations to hospital emergency departments (ED) and subsequent admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular disease”.
“Studies have also reported increased premature mortality related to bushfire smoke exposure,” Dr Cowie said. Alarmingly, Dr Cowie also notes that the New South Wales (NSW) “Health Department and the NSW Ambulance have both confirmed that ED attendances and out-of-hospital ambulance call-outs have increased during the 2019–2020 summer season”. In a January 2020 statement, for example, NSW Health reports “an increase in emergency presentations for asthma and breathing problems to 1115, compared with the five-year average of 829, during December 30 to January 5”. In a separate statement dated 13 December 2019, NSW Health also reports that ambulance calls for breathing problems have been higher than usual with 2448 ambulance calls received, compared to the 5-year average of 1742, while hospital admissions from the emergency department for asthma and breathing problems were 556, which was up on the 5-year average of 435.
Concerning the issue at hand, namely the implications of medium-term exposure to bushfire smoke lasting weeks to months, Dr Cowie said: “A study conducted in Victoria after the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire [where] the surrounding population was exposed to elevated PM2.5 levels for six weeks, found that one year later, adults reported […] increased rates of respiratory symptoms and infants aged up to 2 years or in utero (in the womb) when exposed had increased rates of respiratory tract infections (reported by parents). Further studies of the long-term effects of exposures to bushfire smoke for weeks/a few months are needed to further elucidate the potential for adverse impacts.
“Working populations that spend a substantial proportion of their time outdoors during high pollution episodes and closest to the fires will be most at risk,” Dr Cowie said when asked about the particular industries or professions that are most affected. “Workers will be at the same risk as the general public when exposed to high air pollution levels, and for some occupations it is possible that workers may perhaps be at a higher risk if they engage in strenuous work routines where breathing rates are greater. There are ramifications for workers whose tasks and working day are predominantly outdoors, and protective measures need to be carefully thought through by OHS experts.” Dr Cowie also notes that work trends “will need to take into account exposures to episodes of elevated pollution levels, particularly PM2.5”. It was a sentiment that lawyer Andrew Rich echoed in his response on the legal dimensions of this crisis.
“Employers should be pro-active,” Rich advised. “Given the amount of information now available about the risks of working in hazardous air conditions, and employers’ awareness now that their workforces can be affected, there is an obligation on employers to address the issue. Employers cannot claim ignorance to risks of air pollution posed from bushfires.” Rich also said that if employers have not previously had a plan in place to manage work when air quality is poor, “they should take the opportunity to develop one in consultation with health and safety representatives in the workplace”.
“Employers have a duty under work health and safety legislation to ensure that as far as is reasonably practicable, a work environment is safe and without risks to health,” Rich said. “What is reasonably practicable will turn upon the particular work and the particular business in question.” This is of course known advice, but Rich also emphasised in his advice that “as a general rule, as air quality worsens, additional measures should be carefully considered, in line with the nature of the work and the level of the air quality”.
Rich noted that the need for employers to be proactive applied especially to work undertaken outdoors. “Employers should initially consider limiting or rescheduling outdoor work,” Rich said. “Consideration should be given to limitations on time worked outdoors and/or the location of the work required to be performed. Workers who are particularly susceptible should be offered the opportunity to work indoors at an earlier stage, particularly if the outdoor work required is strenuous. Care should be taken to ensure that indoor work areas are not affected by the hazardous air conditions outside. As air quality deteriorates, employers should consider ceasing all non-critical outdoor work, and only requiring outdoor work to be undertaken if P2 masks can be worn safely.”
Rich’s advice aligns with the advice and action that we have already seen during the unfolding of this crisis. For example, we know from the information already released that employees who are over 65, who have heart or lung conditions (including asthma) and who are pregnant are more sensitive to air pollution than others. Rich also added that: “Whether for indoor or outdoor workplaces, all employers should maintain and have available appropriate first aid to treat employees who may be affected, and should have a mechanism for employees to report issues. Employers should know how to monitor air quality in their work areas, whether themselves or in cooperation with their landlords for indoor work areas or, through the appropriate state and territory authority, for outdoor air quality.”
“The levels of air pollution experienced in Australia this summer are unprecedented,” SWA’s CEO Michelle Baxter told me, acknowledging the game-changing nature of the 2019/20 bushfire season, while also emphasising the responsibilities that businesses have under WHS laws “to take steps to protect workers at risk from air pollution”. In light of these unprecedented conditions, Baxter confirmed that: “As the body responsible for leading developments to improve work health and safety in Australia, Safe Work Australia is working to give business the information and guidance they need.” This has included the publication this year of new practical guidance for persons conducting a business or undertaking.
“In addition to the guidance we have already published,” Baxter said, “we are undertaking initial scoping around air quality, including whether more is required in this area, with a view to reporting to Safe Work Australia members early this year.” My other experts also noting the need for regulator and statutory body action, while also reflecting on how the crisis may shape industry and the conditions under which we work. “It is possible the unions and other bodies may press for terms and conditions in awards or agreements that address employers’ obligations and employees’ rights in circumstances where air quality deteriorates,” Rich suggested.
“Similarly,” Rich went on to say, “health and safety representatives are more likely to press for negotiated Plans to address the performance of work in their workplaces in conditions of deteriorating air quality. It is also likely the air quality will be considered more often and more fully when workplace risks to health and safety are addressed. These processes will hopefully lead to safer workplaces and greater certainty for employees about their rights.” Rich also set out a scope for future claims: “Workers who are injured at work from hazardous air conditions may have access to workers compensation (including, depending upon the circumstances and the jurisdiction, to a claim for compensation for breach of employers’ common law duty of care).”
The unprecedented conditions of the 2019/20 bushfire season have put the issue of air quality decline amid bushfires firmly on the national agenda. This applies equally across health, legal and industry dimensions of this issue, which have been the focus of this feature. In terms of employer responsibility today, Rich advises that “employers should ensure that they have appropriate first aid, and the capacity to monitor air quality in their workplaces”. But planning ahead is also key, and it is clear that work is needed across each of these core areas in order to further advice understanding and facilitate better protection mechanisms.
Dr Cowie gives one example from the research community, confirming that “CAR is in the process of applying for government grants through the Medical Research Futures Fund (MRFF) to enable further studies of the acute and long-term effects of exposure to bushfire smoke”, which constitutes a particularly important area of health in need of further research. As part of our discussion, Dr Cowie also noted the need for “careful consideration” with regard to some of the key WHS questions that have arisen from the ashes of these catastrophic bushfire conditions.
Such questions are likely to remain on the agenda for the months to come and include: What are the key measures employers should be taking to prepare for the 2020/21 season? Is new regulation needed to protect workers from air quality decline amid bushfires? Is there enough clarity around WHS guidance that has been issued, and does this material adequately support employers to protect the respiratory health of their workforce into the future? Each of my three experts confirm that these questions are a priority across the board, which is just as well given the forecasts that suggest such hazardous conditions are likely to intensify in the years to come.
In our interview, Dr Cowie noted: “Health advice provided to date has focused on measures to protect the general public from exposure to high air pollution and to minimise that exposure. Clearly, consideration of OHS issues in light of high air pollution episodes needs to be thought through and considered from an occupational perspective.” Reassuringly, soon after my conversation with Dr Cowie, SWA released workplace-focused guidance materials, titled ‘Managing the risks from air pollution: advice for PCBUs’. Dr Cowie also recommends a CAR-issued fact sheet that outlines some of the major findings to date on the acute and long-term effects of exposure to bushfire smoke, which is available to download at: www.car-cre.org.au/factsheets.
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