Topics explained – Air pollution and bushfire smoke

Managing the work health and safety risks from air pollution (for example, bushfire smoke) at the workplace is a duty for all persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs).

Air pollution can be caused by:

  • bushfires
  • dust storms
  • pollen
  • wood burners
  • motor vehicles.

Air pollutants include:

  • carbon monoxide
  • nitrogen dioxide
  • ozone
  • sulphur dioxide
  • lead and particles.

Managing risks from air pollution

You must provide and maintain a work environment that is without risks to health and safety, this includes hazards such as air pollution.

You can identify when this hazard may be present at your workplace, and the level of risk it might pose to workers, by monitoring your jurisdiction’s air quality index, considering advice and guidance from experts (for example, public health officials), and talking to your workers. You could also undertake air quality testing at your workplace to monitor the ongoing risk.

You must first aim to eliminate WHS risks. If elimination is not reasonably practicable, you must minimise the risks so far as is reasonably practicable. You should follow the hierarchy of control measures, which ranks the ways of controlling risks from the highest level of protection and reliability (eliminating the risk) to the lowest (PPE).

Some examples of how to minimise the risks associated with air pollution includes:

  • relocate work to areas with good air quality (for example, employees working from home or alternative sites)
  • postpone outdoor work (if air pollution is limited to outdoors)
  • find alternative work or work processes with better air quality
  • ensure doors and windows are well sealed to prevent air pollution entering indoor workspaces
  • minimise door and/or window opening to the outdoors (for example, shop doors and sliding service windows should be kept closed whenever possible)
  • switch air conditioning or ventilation systems to recycle or recirculate, to avoid bringing poor quality outdoor air inside
  • use closed-cab vehicles with ventilation set to recycle the air inside the cab
  • avoid using evaporative air conditioners that pull air in from outside with no or little filtering.

Look out for signs of the physical effects of air pollution, such as difficulty breathing, coughing, blurred vision and irritability, and provide information on the effects to your workers. Make allowances for workers suffering physical effects of air pollution (for example, by providing modified duties). Eligible workers would also be entitled to personal leave if they are not fit for work due to the physical effects of air pollution.

More information on the hierarchy of control measures can be found in the How to Manage Work Health and Safety Risks – Code of Practice.

Talking to your workers

You must talk to your workers and their elected Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) and take their views into account when deciding on control measures to eliminate or minimise WHS risks at your workplace, including measures to eliminate or minimise risks from air pollution.

Hearing the experience of your workers allows you to make more informed decisions and helps build worker awareness, understanding and commitment to the decisions made.

Some of your workers may have a pre-existing condition that makes them more sensitive to air pollution (for example, asthma or other respiratory conditions).

Special consideration may also need to be given to older workers and pregnant women. You may or may not know who these workers are. If you know a worker has a condition that might make them more vulnerable, you should confidentially talk to them about their needs.

More information on your duty to consult with workers and HSRs can be found in the Consultation & worker representation page.

Working near bushfires

You should be aware of any bushfires near your work area and be able to evacuate the area if needed. Look out for smoke and take note of the wind direction. Consider postponing outside work if smoke is present.

Business that work in bushfire zones should have a bushfire plan and inform workers of the details contained in the plan. If you work in a bushfire zone and do not know your businesses bushfire plan, ask your supervisor.

Ensure that your work does not increase the risk of starting or intensifying bush fires, particularly if you are working in rural or bushland areas. For example ensure that:

  • any carriers of flammable chemicals and liquids, such as fuel, are properly maintained to minimise the risk of unintentional leakage onto the ground
  • cutting machinery that may cause sparks are kept away from trees, grasses and other combustible debris
  • workers correctly dispose of litter and cigarette butts.

For further information on working near bushfire smoke, see Safe Work Australia’s website.