NSCA Foundation

Smoky workplace: air pollution advice

Thursday, 16 April, 2020

Smoky workplace: air pollution advice

In light of the recent bushfires, Safe Work Australia has released advice for persons conducting a business or undertaking to manage the risks from air pollution. NATIONAL SAFETY provides a summary.

All persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) are responsible for managing the work health and safety (WHS) risks of air pollution (eg, bushfire smoke) at the workplace. Air pollution can be caused by natural sources, such as bushfires, dust storms and pollen, and human activities, including wood burners and motor vehicles. Air pollutants include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, lead and articles. PCBUs are required to ensure the health and safety of workers and others in the workplace by providing and maintaining a work environment that does not risk personal health and safety. PCBUs must identify hazards in the workplace, and their associated risks. PCBUs can identify when air pollution is hazardous in the workplace, and the level of risk it poses, by monitoring their jurisdiction’s air quality index, considering advice from experts (such as public health officials), conferring with workers and undertaking air quality testing to monitor the ongoing risk.

PCBUs must first eliminate WHS risks, as far as they are reasonably practicable. This can be achieved by following the hierarchy of control measures, which rank the ways of controlling risks from the highest level of protection and reliability (eliminating the risk) to the lowest (personal protective equipment, or ‘PPE’). Information about the hierarchy of control measures can be found in the model ‘Code of practice: how to manage work health and safety risks’. Determining if a control measure is reasonably practicable involves consideration of what can be done to manage a risk, and whether it is reasonable in the circumstances to do so. The likelihood of the risk occurring, the degree of harm that might result and the availability of a control measure must also be considered when determining which measure is reasonable to implement. It is important to note that workers could have a pre-existing condition that makes them more sensitive to air pollution, such as asthma or other respiratory conditions.

PCBUs must also give special consideration to older workers and pregnant women; if a worker has a condition that could make them more vulnerable, PCBUs should confidentially talk to them about their needs. PCBUs must talk to workers and their elected health and safety representatives and consider their views when deciding on control measures to eliminate or reduce WHS risks associated with air pollution in the workplace. Hearing the experiences of workers allows PCBUs to make informed decisions and helps build worker awareness, understanding and commitment. PCBUs must eliminate risks to health and safety unless it is not reasonably practicable to do so; they can eliminate exposure to air pollution by relocating work to areas with good air quality (eg, employees working from home or alternative sites). Outdoor work can also be postponed, if air pollution is limited to the outdoors. PCBUs should also consider finding alternative work or work processes with better air quality and reduce risks by isolating the hazard from people eg, protect workers from exposure by isolating them from air pollution. Reducing the physical intensity of work to reduce inhalation of pollution is also advisable.

To minimise risks of air pollution, ensure that doors and windows are sealed, and reduce opening doors and windows to the outdoors. Air-conditioning or ventilation systems can be switched over to recycle or recirculate air, to avoid bringing poor-quality air inside. Use closed-cab vehicles with ventilation set to recycle the air inside the cab, and avoid using evaporative air conditioners that pull air in from outside with little filtering. Domestic or evaporative air conditioners are more likely to bring air pollution inside; commercial evaporative air conditioners may filter out some larger particles, but not all. Implementing engineering control measures (physical or mechanical measures that can improve air quality for workers) can help minimise the risks. Using air purifiers, air locks or curtains can also reduce risk of exposure to pollutants. PCBUs are advised to use administrative control measures (that rely on human assessment and intervention to work effectively, including methods of work, processes or procedures designed to minimise risk). PCBUs should consider increasing the frequency and length of rest times, and provide an indoor area for rest times, as well as rotating staff who work outside through an indoor environment to limit prolonged exposure.

Indoor areas should also be vacuumed regularly with a vacuum that has a high-efficiency particulate air filter to reduce build-up of unsettled particulates. Provide workers with access to water, eye drops, and saline nasal sprays to reduce irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. If possible, only use one entrance to a building to limit flow of poor-quality air into a building. PCBUs and workers should receive training in identifying the physical effects of air pollution, such as difficulty breathing, coughing, blurred vision and irritability. Modify duties and make allowances for workers suffering physical effects of air pollution, and provide personal leave to eligible workers if they are not fit to work. PCBUs must also ensure the plant is functioning correctly, and has not been affected by dust or debris. The remaining risk can be reduced by providing and using suitable PPE that is maintained properly, with instructions on how to use it properly.

When using P2 or N95 masks, PCBUs should ensure they are fitted properly; if the mask is damaged, dirty or wet, it should be replaced. As P2 masks make it more difficult to breathe, PCBUs must be aware that they can increase the risk of a heat-related illness. Paper dust masks, bandanas or handkerchiefs are not a substitute as they do not filter out fine particles. PCBUs must also be aware of other WHS risks that occur when workers are facing air pollution. For example, air pollution due to bushfire smoke often occurs during summer, when WHS risks for outdoor workers from heat and sun exposure are also increased. The advice on air pollution for PCBUs was published on the SWA website earlier this year, it is titled ‘Managing the risks from air pollution: advice for PCBUs’ and is available at www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/doc/managing-risks-air-pollution-advice-pcbus.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/ASDF

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