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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Comprehensive info on preventing skin cancer risks

Unrelated to the article earlier today about working in extreme heat, last week Australia’s Cancer Council released an occupational health and safety (OHS) guide for working outdoors and to prevent and avoid skin cancer. It is a timely release for those of us in the Southern Hemisphere as it allows us several months to review our sun protection policies and practices.

In the prevention chapter the guide follows the established Hierarchy of Controls but perhaps too closely on one issue. There is an assumption that outdoor work occurs primarily in daylight hours, the time of highest risk of ultraviolet (UV) risk. Under administrative controls the guide advise to Reschedule outdoor work programs” perhaps planning

“work routines so outdoor tasks are carried out earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon, when UV levels are lower”

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Can this job be performed in extreme heat?

Parts of Europe are sweltering in extreme Summer temperatures similar to what Australian workers have experienced. A comparison of just temperatures is unreasonable as the European challenge is greater than Australia’s because the society, buildings and operational structures are largely designed and configured for low temperatures and snow. In many ways climate change will be more disruptive for European businesses as Australia has always been hot and dry.

The occupational health and safety (OHS) advice on how to address, or cope with, extreme heat has always been focused on the individual’s capacity to work in heat rather than reconfiguring work to avoid these unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Here is some advice from an American law firm from early this month:

“Summer temperatures can create hazards for workers, and employers can be liable for not addressing conditions that could lead to injuries and illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Liability can arise whether work is being done outside in construction, landscaping, and agriculture, or inside in non-air conditioned manufacturing plants and warehouses.”

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