A study has found that the vast majority of employees were forced to operate in smoke-filled workplaces at least once during the recent summer of disaster, potentially exposing them to hazardous levels of pollution.
The survey of 960 workers, conducted by UnionsACT, found that the unprecedented bout of air pollution during December and January, including more than 35 days of hazardous air quality, has taken a heavy financial, physical and emotional toll on the territory's workforce.
UnionsACT estimates that 63,000 working days were lost when businesses were forced to close because of the bushfire smoke that blanketed Canberra, costing 18,000 workers around $6.6 million in lost wages.
Of those who did work, half reported working in a smoky environment for at least five hours a day, a third said the work conditions caused them anxiety and 15 per cent were forced to seek medical assistance at least during the period.
"It was difficult to breathe in the acrid smoke," one worker said. "I felt that my lungs were being damaged during the entire period, but there was nothing I could do because the smoke was pervasive."
The peak union body said the results showed that much more needed to be done to safeguard the health of workers from bushfire smoke and other air pollution.
"This research demonstrates that a large proportion of working people were exposed to hazardous, toxic levels of smoke, and that many employers failed in their legal obligations to keep workers safe," the UnionsACT report, Hard to Breathe, said.
"The results also demonstrate the urgent need for stronger, clearer regulations for air pollution from sources such as bushfire smoke."
The organisation said the study highlighted significant deficiencies in the response of many employers to the health threat posed by the heavy and persistent pollution.
More than 70 per cent of the workers surveyed reported that they were not provided with safety equipment such as masks and almost two-thirds said they were not consulted as part of risk assessments undertaken by their employer.
More than half said they were not offered alternative work arrangements and 53 per cent reported they were not provided with any information about what to do if the smoke made them feel ill.
UnionsACT said the results showed that "a very large proportion of employers failed in their statutory duty to provide their workers with a safe and healthy workplace by exposing their employees to hazardous smoke at work".
It called for much clearer and tougher standards around workplace safety, and better information from regulators.
"There is an urgent need for strong, unambiguous...regulations regarding air pollution," it said.
UnionsACT called for stronger federal laws to protect incomes during hazardous pollution events and tougher action by regulators.