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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Workplace hazards outside the window

Alerts on December 7 2019

I am entering the last of my four week’s work on a construction site in Sydney.  In my first week, the city was blanketed with thick smoke from nearby bushfires and all construction sites closed early for a day because the air was deemed hazardous.  That smoke has persisted for all of my time in Sydney.  Last Friday I was on site when the occasional piece of ash fluttered on to me.  The bushfire situation is unprecedented and my experience has shown me that Australia and Australian companies seem to struggle with how to operate in a disaster that will undoubtedly return.

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Scientific Meeting challenges

There is a difference between a conference and a scientific meeting. The latter, like the current meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM), provides evidence.  The former tries to provide evidence but is often “infiltrated” by salespeople or the evidence is of a lesser quality.  Both are avenues for gaining information and sometimes the gaining of wisdom.

Day 1 of ANZSOM’s annual scientific meeting was heavy on overhead slides, graphs, Venn diagrams, flowcharts and at least two appearances of photos of Donald Rumsfeld!  There was a curious thread in several presentations – the role of non-occupational factors on workplace hazards and interventions.  This bordered on a discussion of political science and its relevance to occupational health and safety (OHS).  It was a discussion that is rarely heard outside of the basement of the Trades Halls and the challenging questions from die-hard communists and unionists, but it was an important one.  Some time soon we deserve a one-day seminar on the politics of workplace health and safety so that we can better understand what we mean by the lack of political will when we whinge about the slow pace of change. (There will be more on this theme in the exclusive interview with Professors Maureen Dollard and Sally Ferguson soon)

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Business Leaders hear about the Vic Government’s OHS achievements, and about OHS is the Arts

Cameron Ling and Claire Spencer (top) and Natalie Hutchins (below)

October is Australia’s workplace safety month. It operates under different names in different States, but they all started on October 1 2019. These months are almost exclusively about marketing and SafetyAtWorkBlog’s Inbox has received a lot of generic statements about the importance of occupational health and safety (OHS) but with little information about how to improve it. The best we can do about this is to seek knowledge in some of the physical events and seminars scheduled during October.

On October 2 2019, WorkSafe Victoria held a Business Leader’s Breakfast at which there were two featured speakers – the Parliamentary Secretary for Workplace Safety, Natalie Hutchins, and the CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne, Claire Spencer. Hutchins spoke about the occupational health and safety achievements of the Victorian Government and Spencer spoke about the significance of the Arts Wellbeing Collective. They provided a good mix of politics and practice.

Hutchins spoke about

  • Silicosis
  • Hazardous Chemicals and Dangerous Goods
  • Workplace Manslaughter Laws, and
  • Mental Health.
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