What employers need to know: the legal risk of asking staff to work in smokey air

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The following article is reproduced from the excellent academic communication website The Conversation, and is written by Elizabeth Shi, a Senior Lecturer, in RMIT University‘s Graduate School of Business and Law. The article is a very useful contribution to managing the risks of working in smokey environments but is only one contribution to a discussion on occupational health and safety in smokey workplaces that has many, many months to go.

Amid thick bushfire smoke in cities including Canberra and Melbourne, employers need to consider their legal obligations.

Some have directed their workers not to turn up in order to avoid to occupational health and safety risks. Among them is the Commonwealth department of home affairs which last week asked most of its staff to stay away from its Canberra headquarters for 48 hours. Other employers want to know where they stand.

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This year’s bushfires should change the management of outdoor work

Sydney, NSW, Australia – November 20th 2019: Smoke over Sydney due to bush fires on edge of city. Fires have been burning for days and have been described as unprecedented.

Safe Work Australia (SWA) has reminded Australian businesses that they have a formal occupational health and safety (OHS) responsibility for workers exposed to poor air quality. Its guidance provides sound risk considerations for outdoor workers and their managers, but needs further explanation to help businesses reduce the risk in a practical sense.

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Small packages, big info

Face-to-Face communication trumps electronic communication every time. This is true for telling stories to trauma counselling to telling someone you love them.

Prof. Michael Quinlan and Alena Titterton Akins at the 2019 Tasmania Health & Safety Symposium

Sixty delegates attended the one-day occupational health and safety (OHS) symposium in Tasmania yesterday. These symposia seem to be the modern equivalent of the traditional conference, especially in Australia, and offer the opportunity for better conversations about OHS. This format still has some need for refinement but it seems more informative than a lecture and less confusing than a multi-streamed big conference of thousands of people.

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Communicating about OHS in New Zealand

Safety conferences rarely generate media interest unless the relevant occupational health and safety (OHS) Minister is speaking or there has been a recent workplace death or safety scandal. At the recent SafetyConnect conference held by the NSCA Foundation in Melbourne, SafetyAtWorkBlog was able to chat with the Editor of New Zealand’s SafeGuard magazine, Peter Bateman. Peter has been editing the magazine and writing about workplace health and safety for a long time and, as an outsider to the OHS profession, he has some useful perspectives on how to communicate about safe and healthy workplaces.

Peter Bateman and Kevin Jones in 2015

SAWB: Peter, great to see you at the Safety Connect conference in Melbourne, hosted by the National Safety Council of Australia Foundation.  So, day one, thanks for coming over from New Zealand.  You’ve been coming to safety conferences for a long time.  How important are safety conferences to your magazine given that Safeguard runs its own conferences as well?

PB: We’ve had the opportunity, through growing the credibility of the Safeguard brand through the magazine, that’s given us I think the trust and the credibility with readers so that when we launched the awards actually, the first event we launched way back in 2005 and then the main conference a couple of years later.  And they were small, but they were successful in their own way and we’ve just been fortunate to grow them year on year, so New Zealand Workplace Health and Safety Awards have been going for 15 years and the main Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference for almost as long.  Then from that we’ve managed to create some more specialist one-day conferences as well.

SAWB: I think I’ve seen a LegalSafe one.

PB: LegalSafe, which is more on the compliance side for those people who want more compliance side even though that’s not my particular area of interest.  But I recognise that a lot of people are very focused on compliance and fair enough.  Then more recently we’ve developed HealthyWork which started off as a way of bringing together traditional occupational health interests with the emerging wellbeing side but has really gone more into the wellbeing and psychosocial stuff as we’ve progressed. And in the last couple of years we’ve launched SafeSkills for H&S reps.

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Tough but short-term

A toxic fire in an industrial district creates plumes of dangerous smoke billowing up into the air as seen from behind a near by warehouse building, 2019. Credit:Christopher Freeman

Melbourne, Australia has recently suffered several notable factory fires that resulted from unsafe storage of chemical wastes. These fires have resulted in toxic fumes across residential suburbs, environmental damage to local waterways and some injuries to workers. Victoria’s Minister for Workplace Safety, Jill Hennessy has responded by increasing penalties for breaching occupational health and safety (OHS) laws. This is a good short-term measure and indicates to the community that their government is doing something but is not a sustainable prevention strategy.

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