There are significant hazards in working during, and in the recovery phase of bushfires. Comcare provides information for workers and employers to help them navigate their rights, roles and responsibilities under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and Work Health and Safety Regulations 2011.
Working in bushfire recovery
Employers and workers involved in any bushfire recovery activity must comply with obligations under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
Comcare has developed a Working in Bushfire Recovery information sheet (PDF, 720.0 KB) covering topics such as employer duties, risk management principles and common risks in bushfire recovery.
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.
Employers 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.
- 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.
Employers 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 employers should use risk management principles to assess if employees may be put in danger as result of the work to be undertaken.
Employers should also:
- Carry out appropriate risk assessments before work commences
- Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, and instructing workers on correct use and fitting
- Ensure employees working alone, remotely or in an isolated place always have an effective means of communication. More information is available in the Code of Practice: Managing the Work Environment and Facilities
- Maintain awareness of any bushfires near proposed work areas and advising workers accordingly, including to follow instructions and advice from emergency services and evacuate the area if needed
- Monitor outdoor air quality levels via the appropriate state and territory authority:
Further advice on working outdoors is available from Safe Work Australia
Monitoring air quality
While there is no single Australian standard that addresses acceptable indoor air quality, employers 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, employers 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.
Fact sheets about bushfire smoke – including advice on exposure, PPE and vulnerable groups – are available from the Australian Government Department of Health.
For more information
- about smoke and air quality visit the Bureau of Meteorology
- on the impacts of bushfire smoke visit Safe Work Australia.
- for employers on managing the risks from air pollution visit Safe Work Australia.
Mental health and wellbeing
The mental health of workers either directly or indirectly affected by the bushfires is another important consideration for employers.
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.
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.
Visit the Comcare website for further information about mental health responsibilities at work.
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 include more specific requirements for employers 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.