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Bushfires: work health and safety

For: Claimants Employers and managers Service providers Advocates Information seekers

Bushfires: work health and safety

With bushfires impacting communities across Australia, Comcare provides information for 'persons conducting a business or undertaking' (PCBUs) to help them navigate their rights, roles and responsibilities under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011.

Key resources:

Working indoors

PCBUs must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable that indoor environments are safe and without risks to health for workers during periods of elevated smoke levels. Workers should report any issues with air quality to their supervisors to keep them informed.

PCBUs should:

  • work with their property management, such as building landlords, to monitor the air quality of their buildings or workplaces
  • keep workers informed of the measures taken.

PCBUs can contact Comcare via whs.help@comcare.gov.au or for more information go to the Australian Government Department of Health.

Any workers experiencing wheezing, chest tightness or difficulty breathing should seek urgent medical attention. People who are sensitive to smoke and air pollution can be more vulnerable to heat related illness as well, so staying hydrated and cool is important.

For more information, read our Working in Bushfire Recovery Information Sheet (PDF, 171.9 KB).

Working outdoors

PCBUs should reschedule outdoor or field work, so far as is reasonably practicable, until conditions such as visibility and air quality improve. However, if work needs to go ahead PCBUs should use risk management principles to assess if employees may be put in danger as result of the work to be undertaken.

For more information read our Working in Bushfire Recovery Information Sheet (PDF, 171.9 KB).

PCBUs should also consider the following:

Any workers experiencing wheezing, chest tightness or difficulty breathing should seek urgent medical attention. People who are sensitive to smoke and air pollution can be more vulnerable to heat related illness as well, so staying hydrated and cool is important.

Working in bushfire recovery

PCBUs and workers involved in any bushfire recovery activity must comply with obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (WHS Act).

Comcare has developed a Working in Bushfire Recovery information sheet (PDF, 171.9 KB) covering topics such as PCBU duties, risk management principles, and common risks in bushfire recovery.

Claims: working in bushfire recovery

Employees who are part of the Comcare scheme may work and, in many cases, are already working in bushfire recovery across Australia. This includes working in their current roles and as volunteers, such as volunteer firefighters, along with a range of other capacities.

Australian Public Service (APS) employees working in the bushfire emergency are also entitled to additional leave arrangements that were announced by the Prime Minister on 24 December 2019.

More information about coverage and claims management considerations under the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988 (SRC Act) for people working in the bushfire emergency, can be found via Comcare’s:

Monitoring air quality

While there is no single Australian standard that addresses acceptable indoor air quality, PCBUs should work with their property teams and/or building landlords to address any concerns about indoor air quality resulting from bushfire smoke.

Smoke from bushfires is made up of very small particles and gases including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Building landlords can advise you on any protections that are provided by their building ventilation and monitoring systems.

If air quality analysis is required, PCBUs can seek specialist advice to assess any impacts that outdoor contaminants may have on indoor air quality. Air quality analysis includes the physical, chemical and microbiological makeup within and around buildings especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants.

For more information about smoke and air quality visit the BOM website.

Mental health and wellbeing

The mental health of workers either directly or indirectly affected by the bushfires is another important consideration for PCBUs.

Some people may be struggling to deal with the devastating impact of the bushfires in their communities or the confronting images they’ve seen. For people working in bushfire recovery, there may be no signs of physical injury, however there can be a serious emotional toll from working out in the field. Some symptoms can include depression, anxiety, sadness, anger, fatigue, nightmares and difficulty concentrating.

If employers see signs of mental ill health, they should approach the individual, and connect them with appropriate support services.

The Australian Government has announced a $76 million mental health package providing for individuals, families and communities, including emergency services personnel, impacted by the ongoing bushfire crisis.

Beyond Blue provides a range of resources about bushfires and mental health for individuals, families and children, including common reactions, coping strategies and links to additional support. You can also access information via Life in Mind, Heads Up, Head to Health and via the following confidential helpline services:

  • Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800.

Asbestos

Buildings constructed before 1988 may contain asbestos cement (or ‘AC’) sheeting in walls, roofs, floor underlays, eaves, chimney flues or asbestos in vinyl floor tiles and backing to sheet linoleum. These AC materials are generally not a health risk unless they are cut, broken, drilled or crushed, where asbestos fibres may be released.

The Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011 (WHS Regulations) include more specific requirements for PCBUs to manage the risks associated with asbestos in the workplace.

More information is available in the Code of Practice: How to Manage and Control Asbestos in the Workplace.

Page last reviewed: 01 November 2019
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