New Report: $6m+ cost to workers due to bushfire smoke

UnionsACT has today released a report into the WHS and workplace rights impacts on workers of the bushfire smoke between 1 December 2019 and 31 January 2020.

The report shows that:

  • Lost income for workers due to the smoke exceeds $6 million, with over 18,000 Canberran workers losing at least one days income;
  • More than 85% of Canberran workers worked in a smokey environment. Of those, almost 80% felt sick or unwell due to the smoke and 50% worked while exposed to the smoke for more than 5 hours continuously;
  • The majority of employers failed to take adequate steps required under WHS law to eliminate or minimise workers’ exposure to the smoke;
  • More than two in five workers did not feel free to voice concerns to management about the health risks of the smoke in their workplace, and more than half were worried that they would experience adverse consequences if they exercised their WHS rights to cease work due to hazardous smoke in the workplace.
  • Young workers experienced worse impacts from smoke; workers as young as 15 or 16 were exposed to hazardous smoke for prolonged periods. Twice as many young workers lost income due to the smoke.

The results of this report are in the context of Canberra experiencing prolonged levels of pervasive, hazardous levels of smoke haze and air pollution from bushfires between 1 December 2019 and 21 January 2020.

In that period, the ACT recorded more than 35 days of above hazardous levels of air pollution.

The report also shows that although ACT Health and major media outlets provided significant and continuous updates about air pollution and smoke safety, there was little workplace-specific information about employers’ WHS obligations or workers’ WHS rights. This gap was filled by information by UnionsACT, the ACTU and specific Canberran unions.

The report is available here: www.unionsact.org.au/smoke-report

The following quotes are attributable to Alex White, secretary of UnionsACT:

“This report of almost 1000 workers shows there is an urgent need for much stronger laws and regulations to protect workers’ health in the future. 

“Employers are legally obligated to ensure workers have healthy workplaces, and this includes protecting workers from hazardous air pollution from the smoke.

“Unfortunately, vast numbers of employers failed to ensure workers were safe from toxic bushfire smoke, and it is workers who paid the cost.

“Workers paid for the negligence of employers with their health – both physical and mental health – and have also literally paid due to lost income.

“Young workers, some as young as just 14 or 15 years old, were exposed to toxic smoke for over 5 hours each day with no protective equipment.

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