Hard to Breathe: Canberran workers’ rights, WHS and smoke

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Click here to download Hard to Breathe: WHS & Smoke (PDF).

UnionsACT surveyed over 960 Canberran workers, who were exposed to the bushfire smoke during December 2019 and January 2020.

This research demonstrates that a large proportion of working people were exposed to hazardous, toxic levels of smoke, and that many employers failed in their legal obligations to keep workers safe. The results also demonstrate the urgent need for stronger, clearer regulations for air pollution from sources such as bushfire smoke.

The research also demonstrates that negative health and safety consequences were felt more by vulnerable workers, including young workers and women, compounded by higher levels of income loss due to the smoke.

There is an urgent need for reform in the ACT to protect the safety and health of workers, and also federally to ensure workers do not pay the cost of air pollution and bushfire smoke hazards.


The report recommends that:

  • There is an urgent need for strong, unambiguous WHS regulations regarding air pollution (generally) and bushfire smoke (specifically). This should include considering new presumptive rights to access workers compensation for respiratory illness for workers exposed to bushfire smoke and air pollution.
  • Federally, there is a need to strengthen laws that ensure workers do not lose income due to hazardous smoke or air pollution events.
  • Worksafe ACT, the work safety regulator, must ensure employers who callously disregard the safety of their employees are prosecuted. This is especially the case for employers of children aged under 18. Child-safety regulators should also investigate and prosecute employers who deliberately and knowingly exposed workers aged under 18 to smoke.
  • Greater resources must be provided to unions and industry to train HSRs, and ensure workers and employers, understand their rights and legal duties during hazardous smoke events.

Media Statement

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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