FACT SHEET: WHS & Bushfire Smoke

Fact Sheet

Potential effects of smoke inhalation

Bushfires pose a unique danger to firefighters but also other workers and volunteers, including from smoke inhalation. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has estimated that ordinarily about 3000 deaths are attributable to air pollution in Australia each year as at 2016, about 2.5 times as many as road fatalities. Health risk assessments find that the most severe effects are linked to high levels of particulate matter, such as smoke (PM2.5). Cardiac arrest was found to particularly increase in Melbourne during the summer of 2006–07, when smoke from fires affected Melbourne residents.[1]


PM2.5 can result in decreased lung function, increased respiratory symptoms, increased chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, increased cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary disease, increased mortality, and shorter life expectancy.[2]  The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified particulate matter as carcinogenic.[3]

[1] Dr K Emmerson et al, Health impacts of air pollution Ambient air quality (2016), accessed at soe.environment.gov.au/theme/atmosphere

[2] Pope CA & Dockery DW, Health effects of fine particulate air pollution: lines that connect (2006) Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association 56:709–742.

[3] Loomis D, et al, The carcinogenicity of outdoor air pollution (2013), Lancet Oncology 14(13):1262–1263.2

What standards are there for air quality?

The National Pollutant Inventory, of the Australian Government Department of Environment and Energy, advises that no level of PM2.5 is safe to our health.[1] Despite this, the National Environment Protection provides Australian standards for some level of air pollutants.[2] For PM2.5, the maximum recommended standard is 25 µg/m3 in an outdoor air averaged over a 24-hour period, or 8 µg/m3 in outdoor air averaged over a year. The ACT Health Directorate is responsible for measuring air quality in the ACT.

[1] The National Pollutant Inventory, Australian Government Department of Environment and Energy, Factsheet: Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), accessed on 4 December 2019 at www.npi.gov.au/resource/particulate-matter-pm10-and-pm25

[2] Schedule 2, National Environment Protection (Ambient Air Quality) Measure (2016)

Employers’ duty of care and bushfires

Employers (PCBUs) have a legal duty to workers (includes volunteers) to ensure so far as is “reasonably practicable”, that a work environment is safe and without risks to health.[1]


That covers everything including smoke inhalation, potential injury or death, asbestos from burning materials, or toxic fumes. They must also ensure that the means of entering and exiting the workplace are without risks to the health and safety of any person.[2]


SafeWork Australia provides specific duties of an employer under the WHS Regulations 20 and 48 – 50 with regard to airborne contaminants.[3]


The Country Fire Authority provides guidance on how employers should prepare for bushfires, including having a suitable Bushfire Plan and training of all staff on hazards.[4]


There have been a number of successful compensation cases where workers working near fires have developed chronic lung conditions after employers have failed to take adequate measures.[5]


Employers cannot claim ignorance to risks of air pollution posed from bushfires. This was recently shown in a ruling handed down on 20 November 2019 against Hazelwood Power Corporation Pty Ltd by the Victorian Supreme Court. The employer was found guilty of neglecting to take adequate precautions in 2014 given the risks posed by bushfires nearby, when they spread into the open-cut mine, covering the nearby areas in smoke for 6 weeks. Many workers and community members suffered injuries and fatalities.[6]

[1] Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth), Part 2, s.19 (1)

[2] Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth), Part 2, s.20 (2)

[3] Safe Work Australia, Workplace exposure standards for airborne contaminants (18 April 2013) ps 4-5

[4] Country Fire Authority, “A Guide for Businesses: Developing a Bushfire Emergency Plan” (February 2014)

[5] Interview with Renata Musolino OH&S Information Victorian Trades Hall, “Stick Together” on 3CR Community Radio Network (4 December 2019) accessed at www.3cr.org.au/sticktogether

[6] “Associate Professor Barnett concluded that the likely number of deaths across the six postcodes for the two-month period was an additional 9.6 deaths”, p42 Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Report 2015/2016 VOLUME II – Investigations into 2009–2014 deaths

What you can do if you suspect the bushfire smoke is affecting you at work?

Workplace Health and Safety (“WHS”) laws provide the strongest protections for workers. This includes an employee, contractor, subcontractor, employee of a labour hire company, apprentice, student, volunteer and more.[1] Under these laws any individual worker may cease or refuse to carry out work if they are concerned about a serious risk to their health or safety emanating from an immediate or imminent exposure to a hazard, and are protected from dismissal.[2]


Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) should be elected and trained in each area of a workplace. Your union can provide training on how to do this if your workplace doesn’t have a HSR or Workplace Safety Committee. A HSR has the power to direct all workers to cease work if they’re exposed to serious hazards. They must consult with employers to resolve the problem before directing a cease work, but can bypass that consultation if the hazard is “so serious and immediate or imminent that it is not reasonable to consult before giving the direction.”[3]


If a worker ceases work of their own decision or as directed by a HSR, the person conducting the business or undertaking may direct the worker to carry out suitable alternative work at the same or another safe workplace until the worker can resume normal duties.[4]


Practically, workers who have ceased their normal duties for fear of smoke inhalation but are ordered to carry out alternative work, could demand the use of PM2 masks (limited effectiveness), demand alternative duties inside away from smoke with air purifiers (with the filter required for particulate matter),[5] and seek medical attention. Workers should contact their HSR or union for particularised advice.

[1] s.7, Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth)

[2] s.84, Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth)

[3] s.85, Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth)

[4] s.87, Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth)

[5] Zhou, Naaman “Will wearing a face mask protect me from bushfire smoke?” (4 December 2019), The Guardian Australia

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