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Hear from health workers across Australia about how climate change is affecting their lives and work

From the Northern Territory to regional New South Wales and suburban Melbourne, health workers are feeling the brunt of climate change as they consider election policies, reports Lyndal Rowlands.

Her article is published as part of Croakey’s contribution to the global Covering Climate Now collaboration.


Lyndal Rowlands writes:

Bushfire smoke and mould are just some of the increasingly widespread health effects of climate change that will be on the minds of healthcare workers at the coming federal election.

Croakey spoke to four health workers from across the country who are already witnessing the effects of pollution and increasingly unpredictable weather on their communities. They described how climate change is already increasing inequality in health outcomes, making it harder for some communities to meet even their most basic health needs from adequate housing to safe drinking water.

They also discussed how climate change is compounding other problems from social isolation to the safety of health workers during pandemics.

This will be Australia’s first federal election since the severe bushfires that led to 417 excess deaths from bushfire smoke. More recently heat waves swept across Western Australia leaving prisoners at Roebourne Regional Prison exposed to extreme temperatures.

Meanwhile, as the impacts of the flooding crisis continue, the health effects are hard to fully quantify, but have seen many unable to meet even their most basic health needs, including adequate housing.

All of these events, combined with the disregard of some politicians for the wellbeing of people and the environment, are contributing to an increased burden of mental illness, including in young people.

Listen to Indigenous people

Rikki Dank is a Karanjini Gundanji woman and registered nurse from Borroloola in the Northern Territory. More recently she has been focusing on protecting her family’s country from plans to frack the Beetaloo basin.

Dank says that fracking and climate change would compound the health problems her community is already experiencing, including from pollution from the open-cut MacArthur River zinc, lead and silver mine.

“We haven’t reached that 10-year gap in our health,” said Dank, “so, on top of that, you’re adding, the consequences of mining and fracking on Indigenous bodies, and then we’re adding in the consequences of climate change on bodies in remote Aboriginal communities, and I think the human body can only take so much stress for so long.”

The mine has already led to contamination, and if fracking goes ahead it could damage the water table that people in the Territory depend on, potentially leading to further health problems.

“But what can you do, that’s our drinking water?” says Dank. “We can’t afford to go and buy water; we can’t even afford to buy food. Food prices in remote communities are ridiculous. We’ve got those higher levels of lead, and other minerals in the meat, the fish and the turtles, we are eating and putting poison into our body.”

Apart from preventing further pollution from fracking, Dank says that many of the health priorities for her community include meeting basic needs, including housing, drinking water, food and electricity.

Unlike fracking, proposed community renewable energy projects could help people in Borroloola to “run their fridges and keep their medicines in their fridges”.

She says that it’s already possible to see the effects of Australia’s average temperature rising by 1.4 degrees.

“That one degree hotter sets off a chain reaction,” she says. “We’ve seen that the seasons have been starting sooner and lasted longer. You’ll see turtles maybe laying their eggs sooner, and then you know, the animals are becoming confused as to what time of year it is, and then it’s becoming too hot for certain things to happen.”

Looking to the upcoming election, Dank says “for some reason, the Territory is always left out”.

“Both governments – Labor and the Liberals – seem to get away with a lot.” She added that it was Peter Garrett, when he was Labor’s Environment Minister in 2009, who approved the mine’s expansion.

By contrast to the two major parties, Greens senators, including Dorinda Cox and Lidia Thorpe, have vocally opposed plans to frack the Beetaloo basin through recent Senate inquiries.

The Federal and NT Governments recently announced an additional $872 million in funding to accelerate fracking plans in the Beetaloo basin. A NT Government report, also released last week, described potential “significant adverse impacts to human health” from plans to process gas in Darwin Harbor.

Dank is concerned that in some ways things have been going backwards, whether with the Intervention or the erosion of native title. “There’s been recent changes to Native Title Act, which allow for mining and fracking companies to bypass traditional owners,” she said.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report makes clear that colonialism is responsible for climate change and that Indigenous peoples hold many of the answers needed to begin tackling the crisis.

“We had been living there for 65,000 years and living there successfully. I don’t understand why people don’t want to get excited about that. Why wouldn’t we want to just sit back and listen to Indigenous people and how they manage their lands?”

Rikki Dank, dancing with her daughter and grandmother.
Rikki Dank, dancing with her daughter and grandmother. Photo supplied

From coal to care work

Janice Hilton and Michael Gilray are home care workers from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. They are concerned that the Government is still providing hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to new fossil fuel projects in the Hunter Valley but is not investing in providing better paying jobs in the region, including through the long-term neglect of the home care sector.

I spoke with Hilton and Gilray a few days after Labor leader Anthony Albanese announced a focus on aged care in the upcoming election.

“There’s a critical shortage of staff because of the low wages,” said Hilton. “It’s just in crisis. The whole situation is in crisis.”

“A lot of the people who do get into the aged care sector seem to be in the over 50 age category,” said Hilton, who used to work in research on coal for BHP. “I transitioned later on in life, to work in the care industry, but I think that’s always where I was destined to be because I really enjoy working in the care industry.”

Gilray is concerned that care work is undervalued by the political discourse around the Hunter Valley which focuses on coal mining jobs but not other sectors like care work.

“You know, we’re talking about getting the good jobs and good money for the miners coming,” he said, “maybe, it’s because I’m a male working in caring, I’m so much more aware of just how abused the females in the system are, because it’s mainly female based. You know, we’re not getting our voice heard.”

The pandemic and recent extreme weather have also taken a toll.

“We have some lovely clients. I had one gave me a bag of lemons to distribute today,” says Hilton. She speaks with genuine compassion about wanting more opportunities for social inclusion for her clients who have felt that recent floods have added to their sense of social isolation during the pandemic. “They’ve just gone into a shell … and they’re too frightened to come out.”

The pair say that they are already feeling the impacts of unpredictable weather on their already physically challenging work. Under the current agreement, care workers aren’t paid for travel time, yet recent widespread flooding has led to potholes and other dangerous driving conditions.

In between visiting clients in their homes, they wait in the cars, yet in recent hotter summers, their air conditioning struggled to keep up.

Gilray says that working in PPE during the heat has also been hard. “In home care people might have an air conditioner, but can’t afford to run it,” he says.

Home care workers: Janice Hilton and Michael Gilray

Like working in a greenhouse

Like other recent disasters, Australia’s pandemic response has also revealed how ill prepared our national disaster systems are for climate change.

Phoebe Smithies, a physiotherapist who worked at COVID-19 testing sites in Melbourne’s north, says she experienced heat stroke symptoms after working in full personal protective equipment (PPE) as temperatures soared in the summer of 2020-2021.

“I felt very unwell,” says Smithies, after one of her shifts, when she returned home and experienced heat stroke symptoms. The site was forced to close early due to workers feeling unwell in the heat.

“Lots of sites are so busy that they would send you out to triage patients out in the sun,” said Smithies.

Back inside the tent, temperatures could get even hotter: “It’s like a greenhouse and you’re wearing full PPE, so you have to wear either goggles or the visor and the N95 and the gown.”

Image of Phoebe Smithies.
Phoebe Smithies. Photo supplied

Smithies responded to calls for allied health workers to work at COVID-19 testing centres because she wanted to help alleviate pressure on nurses and other hospital workers while her own workload was reduced by restrictions.

A pandemic response outsourced to casual workers may need to be reviewed, as infectious disease outbreaks and extreme weather will become more common with climate change.

“I don’t think this is the last pandemic that we’re going to see, considering climate change is likely to exacerbate that problem with more people, refugees and displaced people living in close quarters, or us encroaching more on animal habitat.”

Like many other health workers, Smithies has been involved in p