As Australia suffers from the worst bushfires the country has seen in decades, those working in affected areas are asking what respiratory precautions they need to take? This article highlights ways to protect outdoor workers from the effects of bushfires.
Why is bushfire smoke so harmful?
Breathing bushfire smoke is particularly harmful to a person’s health, as it contains chemicals and fine particles which can reduce lung function. It causes coughing, wheezing and makes it difficult to breathe, especially for those with asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions.
The smallest and usually the most harmful particulate matter generated by bushfire smoke is PM2.5. This consists of solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in air with an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller. Due to these particulates being so small and light, they tend to remain in the air longer, increasing the chances of inhalation, entering deep into the lungs and in some cases the bloodstream.
Learnings from the Californian wildfires
California, another area frequently affected by wildfires, implemented emergency regulations to protect workers from hazards associated with wildfires. It applies to workplaces where the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for airborne PM2.5 is 151 or greater (deemed an unhealthy level) and where the employer should reasonably anticipate that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke. Reference section 5141.1 for details on the scope and application of this regulation.
Under the Emergency Regulation, employers in California must take the following steps to protect workers who may be exposed to wildfire smoke:
- Identify harmful exposure to airborne particulate matter from wildfire smoke at the start of each shift and periodically thereafter by checking the AQI for PM2.5 in regions where workers are located.
- Reduce harmful exposure to wildfire smoke if feasible. For example, by relocating work to an enclosed building with filtered air or to an outdoor location where the AQI for PM2.5 is 150 or lower.
- If employers cannot reduce workers’ harmful exposure to wildfire smoke so that the AQI for PM2.5 is 150 or lower, they must provide respirators such as N95/P2 masks* to all employees for voluntary use.
Further guidance on protection from bushfire smoke
New South Wales Ministry of Health provides further guidance on protecting yourself from bushfire smoke:
- Follow your doctor’s advice about medicines and your asthma management plan, if you have one.
- Keep your medication close at hand. Consult your doctor if symptoms worsen.
- Groups at greater risk from bushfire smoke include people with heart and or lung diseases, the elderly, children and pregnant women.
- Monitor air quality and follow health messages.
- Avoid vigorous outdoor activity.
- Spend more time indoors. Keep doors and windows shut to keep the smoke out. Open windows and doors whenever the smoke clears.
- Avoid indoor sources of air pollution like cigarettes, candles and incense sticks.
- N95/P2 masks can filter out fine particles in smoke but can make it harder to breathe and increase the risk of heat-related illness, so *consult your doctor before using one.
- When N95/P2 masks become moist, find a location with cleaner air and replace it.
Where can employers check current AQI measurements and local guidance?
Each State or Territory in Australia is responsible for monitoring and publishing air quality measurements. Below is an example from the NSW Air Quality agency.
Check the localized AQI measurements, guidance and forecasts for the specific Australian State or Territory your employees are currently working in, by visiting the relevant Air Quality agency’s website:
It is worth noting that air quality monitors measure PM2.5 concentration in mg/m3 or μ/m3. However, Air Quality agencies tend to use AQI when presenting air quality measurements to the public, as the color coded scale is easier to understand. Learn how to convert AQI into μg/m3.
For more support in protecting outdoor workers from the effects of bushfire smoke please get in touch.