On January 30 2020, the Victorian Trades Hall released a new “approved safety standard” on air quality risks for outdoor workers. It is the latest of a series of alerts and guidelines generated by the persistence of bushfire smoke in urban areas of, especially, New South Wales and Victoria. Bushfire smoke is only going to become more frequent in Australia, and its persistence over weeks, requires a coordinated discussion on how Australian workplaces and practices need to change to adapt to the new climate.
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.
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.
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)
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”page 17