The smoke alarms going off across Sydney last week are a symptom of a much larger malaise: our communities and buildings are not prepared for the climate emergency. From HVAC systems and building quality through to workplace health and resourcing for organisations and workers on the frontlines of the drought and the fires, urgent action is needed to improve resilience.
The damage from the hazardous air pollution in much of NSW is a prime example of how our health is being harmed by climate change, says Climate and Health Alliance executive director Fiona Armstrong.
The NSW Health Department advises people to stay indoors to avoid bushfire smoke but thanks to fire alarms being set off by the smoke, many workers – including those at the Rural Fire Services headquarters – are being pushed out into the hazardous air.
Many outdoor workers, including wharfies, electricians and construction workers who are backed by their unions, walked off the job, last week. But others, such as small gardening outfits, aren’t so lucky.
SafeWork NSW tells The Fifth Estate that employers need to recognise their duty to ensure a workplace is safe.
When air quality is hazardous, employers should allow staff to work from home, if possible, or change tasks so they can work indoors or at a less hazardous location, varying tasks to avoid strenuous activity, and providing appropriate protective equipment such as P2 masks. Paper masks do not provide protection from the fine particles in smoke.
“Employers and businesses must manage health and safety risks to workers even if the environment created by bushfire smoke is not completely within their control,” a spokesperson for SafeWork NSW says.
People should stop work if they are experiencing adverse health effects and tell a supervisor if they have asthma or other respiratory issues because they may need special consideration during bushfire smoke periods.
The spokesperson also notes that the risks associated with bushfire smoke often coincide with heat stress, which is something else employers need to manage.
The key message from experts is that this current emergency is unlikely to be a one-off. It is the “new normal” life in a changed climate.
Even hospitals are not designed to cope with this situation. Armstrong says she was hearing reports of smoke getting inside Sydney hospitals.
This heightens the need for urgent action to address climate change and reduce emissions, before it all gets worse.
“There’s only so much members of the public can do to manage their health when conditions are this poor,” Armstrong says. “Unless we act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll continue to literally pour fuel on the fire.”
“This moment calls for political leadership. All of our political leaders must acknowledge the health and environmental emergency of climate change and step up and commit to urgent climate action by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with what the science demands.”
Greater investment is also needed in primary healthcare services and emergency departments. In the current crisis, emergency services have been receiving up to 100 calls a day for urgent assistance from people experiencing respiratory distress.
While Armstrong says emergency services are well-equipped for a sudden disaster, such as a Bali bombing-type of event, they are not prepared for a lengthy, drawn-out crisis on a wide geographic scale.
“Nobody is scaling up healthcare for climate change.”
Most hospitals haven’t developed any kind of climate change risk assessment for their facilities and operations, she says.
Health workers are becoming exhausted, and medical supplies may run low.
“The supply chain is very vulnerable,” Armstrong says.
The health burden is not just a short term problem, she says. The PM 2.5 particles in bushfire smoke can be absorbed deep into the lungs and then cross into the bloodstream.
Exposure to air pollution can have long-term health impacts, including increased asthma rates, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and escalation of diabetes and dementia. Maternal exposure can damage a child in utero, leading to low birthweights and an increased risk of premature birth.
“If this crisis does anything, it will underscore the need for real, urgent action on climate change,” says Armstrong.
The equity issue
Kellie Caught, senior advisor for energy and climate change at the Australian Council of Social Services, says federal and state governments have been “putting their heads in the sand” and have not invested sufficiently in adaptation and resilience.
The impacts of the current climate emergency are falling disproportionately on low-income households in areas such as Sydney’s western suburbs and regional communities, where heat, fire and smoke risks are greatest.
Caught says research shows people on low incomes or those who experience disadvantage are the worst affected, because they often do not have the “choice and control” to adapt and recover from events.
Climate change is not only entrenching poverty, it can also create poverty. For example, the Townsville floods earlier this year, pushed up rents for the housing that was not damaged, leaving many people homeless.
Low income households, particularly those on NewStart, already struggle to pay rent and energy bills. Adding the purchase of P2 masks or medications for asthma may be beyond their budget. Many low-income families live in rental accommodation that does not have air-conditioning. If there is air-conditioning, people often can’t afford to run it. Also, casual workers often don’t have sick leave they can use if they won’t to stay home to avoid air pollution.
Caught says there needs to be greater support for the community organisations helping people with climate change impacts. That includes resources for disaster management and continuity planning.
Community organisations also need to be “active participants” in emergency planning, and there needs to be funding to cover additional costs incurred during emergencies.
While it is “great to see the way the Australian community has rallied behind the volunteer firefighters” of the various state rural fire services, Caught says there is also a level of anger that the government is not recognising these unprecedented fires as “the new normal”.
We have to question whether fire service volunteers have the capacity to keep doing what they have been doing, she says.
“The bushfire season now starts earlier and continues for months,” Caught says. “Change is needed, and there is a need for additional resources.”