When a bushfire strikes in your region, there may be risks to your workers' health and safety even when your business operates outside of the affected location.

Airborne ash, smoke and asbestos can significantly impact on the air quality across a wide-spread area – affecting whole towns, cities or even states.

Due to this far-reaching affect, the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) has released a statement calling for employers in the Latrobe Valley to review their occupational health and safety standards regarding air quality.

Workplaces should consider the advice released by the Department of Health regarding employees undertaking strenuous activity outdoors, particularly those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions, VWA Executive Director of Health and Safety Len Neist explained.

"The EPA and the Department of Health are providing updates for the entire Latrobe Valley community and there are daily community meetings, so employers can keep abreast of any developments that might affect their staff," Mr Neist said in a February 18 media release.

Currently, businesses in the Latrobe Valley are at risk of smoke affects due to a number of bushfires in the region and the still-burning Hazelwood open cut mine fire.

The Victorian branch of the Environment Protection Authority has issued a low level alert for the Latrobe Valley. This warning means visibility is reduced to between 10 and 20 kilometres due to smoke and those vulnerable to low air quality – such as asthmatics, children and the elderly – should limit their time outdoors.

"We're asking businesses to review their systems of work and consider if measures need to be put in place to protect staff from the risks associated with smoke. Reassigning staff with pre-existing conditions to non-strenuous, indoor work is one action workplaces can take to reduce risk to their staff," Mr Neist explained.

"The smoke haze is also affecting visibility in some areas, which may pose risks to staff operating machinery and equipment. If conditions make it difficult to see the workspace and other surroundings, work should be postponed."

In addition to the lowered visibility and impact on breathing, employers are urged to consider the potential danger for airborne asbestos in an area affected by bushfires. Airborne asbestos awareness is particularly important during the containment and clean-up of a bushfire-damaged region.

Asbestos danger after bushfires

If a bushfire or other fire-related event has occurred in the area around your business, you and your employees may be at risk of airborne asbestos fibres.

Asbestos fibres are at their most dangerous when airborne, as they can potentially travel long distances to be inhaled by nearby workers. The particles can then remain in an individual's lungs for years before developing into a serious disease, such as mesothelioma or other forms of lung cancer.

Mesothelioma – a cancer which affects the lining of the lungs – grows very quickly and can spread throughout the body before symptoms appear. This makes it particularly difficult to treat as many organs are affected before an individual will know to seek medical treatment.

During a bushfire, asbestos-containing materials can be wrecked and release deadly asbestos fibres into the air. These may therefore be present when you return to your fire-damaged property and put your health at risk.

While, because it's a fire-resistant material, there may not be a large number of asbestos fibres present in the actual smoke from the fire-event, these particles can still be present in significant quantities. Additionally, asbestos fibres may be disturbed during the clean-up of damaged properties, which means the risk remains long after the fire itself has passed.

When a fire has been successfully put out, many people assume the air quality improves to safe levels as soon as the smoke begins to clear. However, as clean-up crews and repair workers move through the area, disturbed asbestos fibres may become airborne.

Depending on the wind and weather currently affecting the region, these particles could become spread over a surprisingly wide area, putting your business and workers at risk.

Minimising asbestos risk in your business

To avoid asbestos-related illness among your workers, it is important that you remain aware of the risks potentially affecting your area.

This includes keeping up to date with any announcements regarding asbestos discoveries in your region and staying alert in regards to bushfires, damaged property and air quality.

If you believe there is a risk of airborne asbestos in your area, it is crucial to limit the amount of time employees spend outside. Additionally, allowing workers to complete strenuous physical activity outdoors can increase the risk of asbestos exposure, due to employees breathing heavily, so minimising these activities is recommended.

Once indoors, closing the windows is a simple and effective method of reducing asbestos exposure. Ensure ventilation in your building is recycled or filtered to avoid fibres being carried indoors via your ventilation.

For those who are required to work outdoors in an area with a high risk of asbestos exposure, employers should provide adequate protective clothing, including special P2 face masks to filter the fibres from breath.

Disposable clothing worn in an area with high levels of airborne asbestos should be disposed of in the same manner as other asbestos waste – seal it in double plastic bags (at least 200 micron thick), dampen it down and dispose of the bags at an official facility.

If you are aware of asbestos in your region, it is also important that you or someone on your staff has received suitable asbestos assessment training to ensure your business can identify and safely remove asbestos before it impacts on the health of your employees.

For more information on asbestos awareness training, get in touch with the AlertForce team today to find out what training options are available.