UNIONS are calling on Worksafe to prosecute companies that “forced” employees to work through the December-January bushfire smoke period.
“The bushfire smoke that has covered Canberra since last year is toxic. There is no safe level of exposure,” says UnionsACT secretary Alex White.
“It is essential that Worksafe act to protect the health of working people and take action against employers who knowingly exposed their employees to serious health risks.”
He says the Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act requires employers to ensure the health and safety of workers as far as reasonably practicable.
“Case law demonstrates that employers cannot claim ‘ignorance’ of the risks of the smoke as a defence.
“We call on Worksafe to enforce the rights of workers to have healthy workplaces.
“This means Worksafe must commence compliance action and prosecutions against employers who deliberately disregarded their legal duties by coercing and bullying employees to work in the toxic smoke.“
He says that air-quality index ratings above 150 are “very poor” and above 100 exceeds the national standard. At 150 or above, according to Commonwealth environmental health authorities, “everyone may begin to experience health effects”.
The air quality index in Canberra has been above 200 (hazardous) on 29 days since 1 December.
“UnionsACT has been contacted by numerous workers who reported they were required to work for extended periods while exposed to smoke levels many times above hazardous levels over the Christmas and New Year period. This includes a range of industries including retail, cafes and restaurants, aged care and construction,” says Mr White.