Your Rights Working In Smoke Haze: Bushfires and Air Quality - ACTU Australian Unions
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Your Rights with Smoke Haze: Bushfires and Air Quality

Bushfire smoke contains a mixture of gases and very fine particles that can be hazardous to health.

Those most at risk are firefighters and outdoor workers.

The short-term health hazards include making asthma and chronic bronchitis/emphysema worse. People who suffer from asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or diabetes or cardiovascular diseases like angina or heart failure are at higher risk and need to take additional precautions.

Asthmatics may need to use their medications more often.

Air quality is measured using the Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI combines the measures of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, particles PM10 and PM2.5 and visibility into a rating of air quality.

PM2.5 is the smallest and usually most harmful particle as the invisible particles are able to go deep into the lungs and cause inflammation. PM2.5 is a particle less than 2.5 microns in diameter – very fine human hair is about 20 microns in diameter.

PM2.5 typically affects the respiratory, cardiovascular and immune systems and metabolic functions eg blood sugar in some people.

An AQI less than 50 indicates that the air quality is good. At this low level, a person can spend time outdoors and air pollution will pose very little risk to their health. As the AQI number increases, so does the risk to human health.

The EPA or Health department in states and jurisdictions publishes air quality information
regularly. To find out more, visit
https://aqicn.org/map/australia/ 

People most at risk from particle pollution exposure include those with heart or lung disease (including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease-COPD), older adults, and children. Research indicates that pregnant women, newborns, and people with certain health conditions, such as obesity or diabetes, also may be more susceptible to Particulate Matter
(PM)-related effects.

It is important to note that the long term health effects of exposure to PM2.5 and PM10 are unknown.

When the AQI is above 200 it is likely that even healthy people may experience eye, throat and nose irritation, coughing, chest tightness and shortness of breath.

Exposure needs to be avoided by staying indoors with windows closed and running an air conditioner, keeping activity levels low and avoiding activities that make you breathe faster
and deeper.

The ACTU advises that where AQI exceeds 150, steps to minimise exposure should be taken including:

  • locating work inside or in enclosed structures/vehicles where the air is filtered
  • changing the place of work where levels are lower
  • reducing work time in area of unfiltered air
  • increasing frequency and length of rest times and
  • reducing the physical intensity of work to help lower breathing and heart rates

NOTE:

  1. We breathe more deeply and quickly during physical activity which means more hazardous particles are inhaled. An average adult breathes about 7 litres per minute when resting. This increases as exercise increases eg brisk walking about 35 litres per minute and running is about 10 times the resting rate.
  2. Workers should consider air quality and forecasts when planning travel (in particular if using public transport) and make plans to minimize time spent in areas of poor air quality.
  3. Check the BOM for weather forecasts.
  4. Check the nearest EPA monitoring station for Air Quality.
  5. Check Fire Danger rating – note this means that some work activities such as using particular equipment or welding/grinding activities cannot be performed outside.
  6. Medical advice on what precautions to take may be necessary for at risk workers. Your industry/union may have advice on what to do that is specific to your industry, type of work or workplace. Below is general advice only and workers should seek the advice of the HSR and unions for information that is relevant to your industry or workplace.

 

• locating work inside or in enclosed structures/vehicles with filters effective for PM2.5 particles

• changing the place of work to where levels are lower

• reducing work time in area of unfiltered air

• increasing frequency and length of rest times and

• reducing the physical intensity of work to help lower breathing and heart rates.

Expert advice is required for any use of respiratory protection. Respirators need to be able to
filter particles and fit the person’s face well. Respirators can increase health risks especially when
it’s hot and physical work is involved. Those with medical conditions need medical advice before
using respiratory protection.

If you have concerns about exposure in your workplace contact your union. If you or others are experiencing any of these symptoms you should seek medical advice.