Your employer has a responsibility to take all reasonable measures to ensure that your health and safety is protected at work.

For some people, bushfire smoke may present a serious risk to health and safety due to their personal health circumstances. And, when air quality is particularly low and poses a general health hazard, or the nature of work requires physical exertion outside or in a contaminated environment, everyone should take measures to reduce exposure and reduce risk.

You have the right to refuse to do work which poses a serious risk to your health and safety at work. Your employer can't force you to do work which is unsafe or unhealthy or in an unsafe or unhealthy environment.

If you do not think it is safe for you to work, you should let your employer know and ask them to provide you with alternative duties/ an alternative working environment where the risk is sufficiently reduced. Let them know that you are concerned for your health and safety and talk to them about how the work and the environment can be changed or adapted to sufficiently reduce the risk. 

Your employer should regularly monitor air quality via the ACT Health website and take action to make sure workers are not exposed to hazardous levels of smoke. This action might include one or more these, depending how bad the air quality is: stopping work, closing the workplace, relocating work, doing only essential work, providing more breaks and other support, ensuring doors and windows aren't opened unnecessarily, installing an air purifier, improving providing personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE such as masks is not necessarily effective and is not suitable for all conditions, and it is very important that it is used properly and you only use PPE you have been trained to use. Find out more here.

If you feel too sick to work, you should stop work and seek medical attention if needed. (This applies any time you are sick at work.) and if you suffer symptoms, fill in a Work Health and Safety incident report (ask your employer, health and safety rep or supervisor if you're not sure how to do this).

Sometimes it’s hard to know what is reasonable to do when you think there might be a risk to your health and safety at work. If you are in immediate danger, you feel sick or are suffering symptoms, or there is an immediate hazard, you should stop work (let your employer know you’re doing this) and get in contact with your union or the Young Workers Centre: youngworkerscbr@unionsact.org.au or 02 6225 8104. You should stop work if the work is making you sick or there is a serious risk to your health and safety. Make sure you keep notes of discussions and what happens - if you can.

If you need to stop work because the smoke is affecting you or there is a serious risk to your health and safety: 

  1. Let your employer/ supervisor know and ask for alternative, safe duties in a safe environment; 
  2. Do an incident report – your workplace will have a form that you can use to record a health and safety incident. It’s really important that there is a record of what has happened. 
  3. Contact Worksafe ACT (the government regulator) to report the problem (you can do this anonymously). It’s really important that Worksafe ACT is aware of any incidents.

In general, the best way to be protected is to avoid exposure to smoke 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. See ACT Health advice here.

The steps needed to minimise exposure for workers include:
• 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 or stopping work while smoke haze is hazardous
• 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.

Useful contacts

Young Workers Centre 6225 8104 or youngworkerscbr@unionsact.org.au. The Young Workers Centre provides information and advice to young workers under the age of 25 in the ACT. You can contact us about any question or issue you have about work. We can also advise you which union covers your work and workplace and how to get in touch with them.

Worksafe ACT 6207 3000 or worksafe@act.gov.au. WorksafeACT is the government department charged with regulating health and safety in ACT workplaces. Your employer (or you) should notify them if there is a serious or dangerous occurrence  or incident through the online notifiable incident report form. You can also report concerns or problems about health and safety at your workplace anonymously to Worksafe ACT here.

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To find out more about the health risks of bushfire smoke and the advice from ACT Health, https://www.accesscanberra.act.gov.au/app/answers/detail/a_id/1767/~/notifying-an-incident-or-dangerous-occurrence#!tabs-2

Authorised by M Harrison for UnionsACT, 11 London Circuit, Canberra 2602 ACT.

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