What are your work health & safety rights during the smoke haze?

In recent weeks, UnionsACT has been contacted by numerous workers (and employers) asking about their rights while Canberra is blanketed in smoke from the bush fires.

The haze and air pollution from the bush fires over December and January is a workplace health and safety matter.

Health officials in Australia and internationally confirm that there is no safe level of exposure to the smoke, which is a toxic combination of gases and particulate matter that can lodge deep in the lungs.

Read the Smoke WHS Fact Sheet

  • Your employer has a legal duty to ensure you have a safe, healthy workplace. 

You cannot be forced to work in the smoke, and you have a right to refuse to undertake dangerous work.

The first thing your employer should do is try to eliminate the smoke from the workplace. This could be via an air purifier or other ventilator (the equipment must be adequate for the space, i.e. a domestic purifier would not be sufficient in an office or retail store).

Secondly, your employer should reduce your exposure to the smoke. For example, changing the layout of your workplace so work does not take place near sources of the smoke (e.g. doors open to the outside), or changing your duties so you do not work outside.

Finally, your employer should provide protective equipment, such as a P2 mask. However, P2 masks are considered ineffective unless you are properly trained in how to use them, and the mask is properly fitted. If your employer simply offers you a P2 mask, they are not doing enough to ensure you are healthy and safe at work.

UnionsACT recommends that outside work or physical/manual work cease if the ACT Health air quality index is 200 or above. At this level, the air pollution is considered hazardous to health.

Remember, you can also access a range of leave entitlements if your work temporarily closes due to the smoke. You can also use carer’s leave if you need to provide care for children and their school or early-childhood centre is closed due to the smoke. You can also access compassionate leave if a member of your family has been impacted by the fires. If you are a volunteer firefighter or emergency services volunteer, you can also access community service leave.

If your work closes due to the smoke, your employer should consult with you and other workers before standing you down without pay. Employers should consider alternatives before a stand-down without pay, for example:

  •  Allowing you to use your leave
  • Provide you with alternative work duties, including working from another location, worksite or even your home

Any changes to your working conditions should be advised to you in writing, including any timeline for how long the workplace will be affected.

If you have any questions, contact us. If the concern is urgent, contact Worksafe.

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