Prior to members and students returning to school, the AEU was working closely with the department on occupational health and safety concerns associated with the bushfires.
DET has responded quickly and appropriately to issues we’ve raised around air quality and ensuring that any staff and students directly or indirectly affected by the bushfires are suitably supported.
As we witnessed in Melbourne and surrounding metropolitan areas during January, the effects of the bushfires could be felt beyond the affected areas in the form of bushfire smoke and haze. This presents an obvious risk to health where air quality is poor or hazardous, and presents an increased risk for anyone with heart or lung conditions, older adults, children and pregnant women. Air quality is measured using the World Health Organisation Air Quality Index, which the EPA then uses to determine the air quality on a scale from Good to Hazardous.
In mid-January, the Victorian Trades Hall convened a meeting of union leaders to discuss the bushfires, including how to manage days of poor air quality. That meeting produced a guidance document which is an important reference for health and safety reps (HSRs).
DET wrote to principals on 21 January, advising them to monitor air quality through the EPA AirWatch site and to make a local assessment of appropriate action, following EPA guidance.
Given it will be up to individual principals and schools to manage the impact of poor air quality, one action HSRs can take now in consultation with their employer and AEU sub-branch is to develop a smoke plan. This plan should articulate what actions will be taken on each level of the EPA scale, as well as managing the industrial implications for staff on days when students are kept indoors and require supervision. While the occasional day may be managed quite easily (much like a wet-day timetable), what plan will be implemented for a sequence of poor air-quality days?
DET has also implemented a range of support processes to schools and communities directly affected by the bushfires. This includes ensuring that staff have 24-hour access to the employee assistance program, confidential support for all principal class officers via the early intervention program, resources and funding for students and families, and $4 million to help employ additional allied health staff such as psychologists and social workers in Outer Gippsland and Ovens Murray.
A dozen other local government areas can also source support where it is identified on a per school basis.
A trauma recovery team has also been established to provide professional development and online resources for dealing with trauma. The AEU welcomes this dedicated support and funding.
While we know that members’ first priority will be responding to the needs of your students and communities, we also urge you to pay attention to your own mental health and wellbeing in the short and long-term as we know the impact of events like these will be felt for years to come. As always, please contact our member support centre with any queries and make use of your elected HSRs and sub-branch structures to ensure OHS is always on the agenda.