Incident ManagementPlummeting Air Quality Index: Work Health and Safety During Wildfire Season

From July 2019 through to March 2020, millions of Australians and New Zealanders learned just what it meant to be surrounded by a cloud of smoke. Blanketing their homes, cars, and clothes, the residue from millions of acres of burning bushland, Work Health and Safety teams scrambled as the the Air Quality Index (AQI) pushed 12 times above Hazardous levels in Sydney and surrounding areas.

In the aftermath of one of the world’s worst natural disasters, the Australian Government Royal Commission into National Natural Disasters reported that up to 80% of Australia’s population was affected by smoke exposure during the event. Further highlighted were over 3000 hospital admissions linked to smoke inhalation and up to 400 potential premature deaths.

Air Quality and Chronic Lower Respiratory Health Conditions

American Wildfire Season - Work Health and Safety 2020Talked about more during the prevalence of wildfires and COVID-19 than any other year, respiratory health conditions are high-risk and well known, but not often discussed in our communities. Given that the 2017-18 Australian National Health Survey found that one-third of all Australians self-reported chronic respiratory conditions, it is likely that some of these sufferers are among your team.

Think this problem could be limited to one side of the Pacific? The Centre for Disease Control found that from 1999 – 2018 the fourth leading cause of death in the United States were related to Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases. Now battling COVID-19 on top of escalating environmental disasters, forgetting to consider the risks of poor air quality can leave your team vulnerable and unprepared.

Air Quality During Natural Disaster Events

In 2019, NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) found that preventative fire control measures actioned across the United States over the last century have, unintentionally, contributed to the number of wildfire related events. Further still, it was discovered that some fire prevention practices have led to excess fuel and ecological breakdown in treated zones. As a result of this misstep, the available quantity of volatile organic materials that can be emitted during a fire have increased meaning further adverse effects on air quality during the same event.

Knowing that the solutions to wildfire prevention and global air quality control will have to be tackled by the international community overall, these startling findings beg us to ask: what actions can I take to keep my people safe?

Work Health and Safety – Smoke Exposure, Wildfires, and a Plummeting Air Quality Index

Like the saying goes “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Waiting for government officials to mandate specific actions for your team may leave your people exposed. Similar to physical threats, public health crises, and climate-related disasters, critical event management teams can plan ahead by identifying first response actions to lowering air quality levels. Think that the many 2020 critical events have left your hands tied for further proactive planning? Think again—prepping your emergency management plan to keep your people safe during air quality crises can be quick, easy, and completed online.

Planning Ahead is Not as Time Consuming As You May Think

To protect your most valuable assets (your team!) during a wildfire and Air Quality-related event, the following steps can have your first response plan online, accessible, and actioned today.

First Response Steps
Consider what your first health and safety steps must be in the event a hazardous air quality alert. Taking a people first approach, and in collaboration with your Work Health and Safety personnel, determine which macro-steps must first be taken to keep your people safe. In the event of a plummeting AQI, does this mean all of your people should limit their commute and work from home? A mass communication system telling your people to do so would be step one.

Map Asset Locations
Using an active alert threat monitoring system, map your organizational asset locations from people, to projects, and places. Are your staffing offices in the city? Drop a marker there. Is your commercial build site in a regional zone? Drop a second pin there. Severe weather warnings will be monitored according to location.

Establish Your Risk Threshold
To plan ahead for potential threats without tying up your key personnel, create a table identifying risk thresholds for air quality suitable to your level of risk tolerance. Instead of requiring ongoing, manual monitoring, an active alert threat monitoring system can watch for potential escalating threats and alert your key decision makers in the face of increased risk.

Create Stakeholder Communication Plans
Anticipate needing to connect with multiple community stakeholders in the face of a critical event? Using third generation SaaS technology tools, iluminr allows users to create threat alert recipes to be triggered for mass notifications. Has iluminr alerted you to an escalating event near one of your key business locations? Automated triggers will act once your designated risk threshold level has been reached. Next, key stakeholders can be alerted to the hazardous changes to the Air Quality Index and lay out what their next actions should be.

Planning ahead to ensure that your people and places are cared for during a climate-related event doesn’t have to be complex or time consuming. Easily the difference between successful event navigation and further fanning the flames, Work Health and Safety and emergency management teams worldwide know that preparation is key to successful crisis navigation. Interested in upgrading your first response plan for ease and automation? All registered iluminr users gain free access to industry-expert panels discussing the importance of using technology to navigate multiple critical events. Get your emergency operations center response plan online today and breathe easy knowing you’ve put your people first.

Written by Marcus Vaughan | Co-Founder and Chief Growth Office, Catalyst Technologies



  • Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements Report, 2020 
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020
  • CDC, 2018
  • NOAA ESRL CSD, 2019-20 
  • NOAA, 2020