Advice to employers

On 18 February 2014, the Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) issued a media release in relation to air quality and workplace safety in the Latrobe Valley. The media release provided that workplaces should:

  • take steps to reduce the impact of bushfire and coal fire smoke on their staff
  • take note of the advice issued by the Department of Health in relation to people undertaking strenuous activity outdoors, particularly those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions
  • keep abreast of the community updates from the EPA and the Department of Health
  • be particularly alert to variable air quality and monitor the EPA and Department of Health websites for updated information, if operating near the Hazelwood coal mine fire
  • review systems of work and consider if measures need to be put in place to protect staff from the risks associated with smoke
  • consider reassigning staff with pre-existing conditions to non-strenuous, indoor work
  • have a conversation in your workplace about the conditions and encourage staff to speak up if they identify any risks to health and safety.

The media release further advised that smoke haze was affecting visibility in some areas, which may pose risks to staff operating machinery and equipment. Subsequently, if conditions made it difficult to see the workspace and other surroundings, work should be postponed.197

Mr Leonard Neist, Executive Director, Health and Safety at VWA, agreed that the advice provided in the media release was very general.198 However, he stated that:

Employers know it’s their duty to provide a safe workplace for their employees. The Department of Health and EPA were putting out those other warnings, so this refers employees to seek that information from the appropriate Department, as to what the special conditions are in terms of the smoke and the ash and the bushfire fall out. In terms of trying to cover off every workplace in a given area at any time, you can’t go into the specifics of every workplace in a single notice. I think this is reminding people of their duty to ensure a safe workplace for their employees, and it’s referring to specific categories that WorkSafe was aware of that needed specific attention, but it also refers them to the EPA and the Department of Health to seek further updates as to what those requirements are; in short, so that they can enforce their duty.199

From 5 March 2014, VWA had an advisory team located in the Morwell Community Information and Recovery Centre (see Chapter 4.7 Relief and recovery). The team offered advice to employers and employees regarding the impact of the mine fire on health and safety in workplaces.200

Despite these measures, many community members felt that they did not receive adequate information to assist them to make decisions about their business.

Ms Wheatland told the Board:

[it was] difficult to make a decision as to know what to do. The advice that we were getting initially was that everything was okay and that we were safe and there was no harm to communities, there was no action that we needed to take. But I just had to step inside the office or outside the office and know that that, and know myself, that that wasn’t right.201

At the community consultation at Kernot Hall, Morwell, on 10 April 2014, the Board heard that community members felt there was no direction given to businesses about potential relocation out of smoke affected areas.202 Ms Wheatland told the Board that she felt bad sending her staff out into conditions that she felt were unsatisfactory, however she had clients that she needed to know were safe and the best way to do that was to check their homes. She said: ‘it’s my role to make sure not only that our clients are safe but the staff as well.’203

Mr Mitchell advised that he had a difficult task balancing the needs of his staff with running the Latrobe City Council effectively for the community:

[the conditions] were challenging from the very next day work opened… the fire really got started on the 9th and from the 10th there were challenging conditions within the office. I guess we were conscious, and I was conscious of our obligations in terms of health and safety, and I was also conscious of the need for the council to actually provide a service to the community and at the same time continue the business as usual functions of council as well.204

Mr Mitchell told the Board that the Council managed staff as best they could. Some staff had relocated immediately after the fire, some staff were already working remotely, and other decisions were made throughout the fire to provide respite to staff.205

Ms Brooke Burke, Morwell Business Owner, expressed some of the difficulties faced by small business employers. She told the Board that she had difficulty obtaining information about whether or not it was safe to keep the studio open during the fire, but found ‘it was very hard to find someone that could tell us if we were or weren’t [safe to open]. Obviously not being a Government agency, we didn’t have anyone in direct contact with us as to whether the building was safe to be in.’206 Ms Burke attempted to contact the Latrobe City Council to ask if there was someone to speak to about what local business should do. She was told that there was no one appointed at the time to assist local businesses.207