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Outdoor workers need greater protection from bushfire smoke, says AWU NSW

March 14, 2020

The NSW Government needs to step up and fund urgently needed research into the health impacts of exposure to bushfire smoke to protect its members employed in the construction, quarrying, road making and frontline fire services.

The AWU is also calling on the NSW Government to develop new work and health safety guidelines ahead of next year’s bushfire season. The new rules could force employers to shut down sites and issue protective measures such as respiratory masks.

The bushfire season may have been unprecedented, but we need to be much better prepared in the future. Current health and safety guidelines just aren’t reflective of this new and emerging workplace hazard. We all felt the effects of breathing in bushfire smoke but spare a thought for the outdoor workers who were exposed to this day after day.

We know this material is hazardous for health and raises the risk of developing lung and heart disease, but there is a dearth of research demonstrating the long-term impact of repeated exposure which needs fixing.

“With our summers getting hotter and drier, it’s imperative the NSW Government provides funding to investigate this damage and help protect people across the state and beyond,” said Daniel Walton, AWU National and NSW Secretary.

AWU members who are particularly affected by the bushfire smoke include firefighters employed across the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and state forestry workers. The AWU says its firefighting members must be provided with the same level of protective equipment and training as those in the metropolitan fire service – Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW). Currently, FRNSW staff are issued with better protective masks and also trained in fighting structural fires.

“Our members have been fighting fires with paper masks and breathing in all sorts of contaminants, where those employed by FRNSW have full breathing apparatus with oxygen attached. We need clear statewide laws on firefighting applied across all agencies. Our firefighters are already putting their lives at risk and should not have to fear long term health damage because of a lack of care and duty from the NSW Government,” added Mr Walton.

The AWU has outlined a series of recommendations in its submission to the NSW Government’s ‘Inquiry into the health impacts of exposure to poor levels of air quality resulting from bushfires and drought.’

It highlights the work being done in California where emergency regulations were issued in 2019 post its horror bush fire season. Employers were legally required to measure exposure to particulate matter, keep workers informed and issue masks when levels exceed 151 PM2.5. It’s expected these levels will be further reduced following a public consultation process.

The AWU’s submission also seeks to protect workers if employers decide to shut down sites due to unsafe air quality levels. Currently, employees can be stood down without pay due to natural disasters. The AWU says industrial provisions should be amended to split the burden between workers and employers based on existing ‘inclement weather’ rules already applicable in the building and construction industry.

“Many of our workers are already exposed to potentially dangerous contaminants in their daily jobs such as construction and quarrying. Longer-term we need national standards in place, but this should not stand in the way of getting NSW to provide guidance ahead of the 2020/2021 bushfire season and show leadership in this area,” said Mr Walton.

You can read the full submission here: AWU Submission to NSW Air Quality Inquiry.

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