Air Quality and the VTHC Air Quality Standard
On January 30, 2020, as a result of severe bushfires in the state in the summer of 2019/2020, Victorian Trades Hall Council launched an air quality standard that connects workers health and safety at work with the Environmental Protection Authority's air quality rating, which can be found on the EPAs AirWatch website.
Reports suggest that since the mid 1990s, ‘southeast Australia has experienced a 15 per cent decline in late autumn and early winter rainfall and a 25 per cent decline in average rainfall between April and May.’ This leads to an increased risk of bushfires which has the potential to not only be deadly due to the fire risk itself, but from the toxic smoke that arises from it, reducing the quality of our air.
A clear example of the decrease in air quality as a result of bushfires was seen in the 2019/2020 bushfires in parts of Victoria and New South Wales where air quality in both Melbourne and Sydney declined to dangerous levels. In fact, smoke from the bushfires killed 12 times more people than the fires themselves. (See: Smoke from Australian bushfires was more deadly than the fires themselves, Air Quality News)
Working under these conditions is a dangerous task with there being increased risk of respiratory tract, lung and heart issues when being exposed to this toxic smoke. As seen with dock and electrical workers in Sydney, workers in unions have the power to stop work if it is a significant health risk and had to take this action during the bushfires. (See: Docks halt, electrical workers stop work as Sydney's pollution worsens, Sydney Morning Herald)
This degradation of air quality is not just something that impacts in acute circumstances. Decreased air quality as a result of rising smog, pollen and ozone levels long term can also present a risk to workers. This poses a significant health risk particularly for workers with underlying respiratory and heart conditions such as asthma where phenomena like thunderstorm asthma become more common due to climate change.
The Air Quality document highlights what employers and workers can do proactively do reduce the risk of exposing workers to poor quality air, particularly at-risk workers and those working outdoors.
Importantly, it is stated that all non-critical outdoor work must cease when the EPA Air Quality Index level is Very Poor.
VTHCs Air Quality Standard can be downloaded below. Consult with your union; use it in your workplace - start the discussion with your employer now.
Even if you work indoors, there are a number of other, related issues. For example, particularly for at risk workers, their health may be at risk even just getting to work. Here are some things to consider:
- According to the VTHC standard, on days where the EPA declares the air as very poor or hazardous, there should be no non-critical outdoor work. Workers who have asthma or any medical condition that may be exacerbated by hazardous air quality making getting to and from work is difficult, they should be able to discuss with their employer the possibility of working from home.
- In the event that hazardous air is disrupting people inside your office/workspace (eg if there is no/insufficient/inappropriate air conditioning) there should be discussions with the employer regarding relocation to another area where the air quality is better due to airdconditioning which recirculates and filters air.
- Ensure there are appropriate protective masks available for staff who need to go outdoors. This means planning ahead and having some in stock, as when there's a bad air quality day these sell out very quickly. Remember that such masks can only be used for four hours at a time. (see advice from the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services: Guidelines for use of face masks (docx, 396 KB)
If you or one of the members of the DWG have specific issues you should approach your manager/employer with any questions or concerns as soon as they arise.
Last amended August 2021