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Lyngbya (blue-green algae)

Lyngbya majuscule is a naturally occurring, toxic, blue-green algae that can cause severe irritation to the eyes, skin, respiratory system or gastrointestinal system. Learn how to manage the risks and keep yourself and others safe.

What’s lyngbya?

Lyngbya majuscula (lyngbya), also known as mermaid’s hair or fireweed, is a naturally occurring, toxic, blue-green algae that occurs in blooms in some coastal waters in Queensland.

Lyngbya attaches to seagrass beds and grows fine strands about 10-to-30 centimetres long. The strands clump together and rise to the surface in floating mats that can wash up on the beach.

Lyngbya grows and blooms at a faster rate when water temperatures are above 24 degrees Celsius, conditions are light, and the water contains high levels of nutrients such as phosphorous, nitrogen, bio-available iron and dissolved organic matter.

What are the risks of lyngbya?

Toxins in the wet or dry lyngbya algae cause skin and eye irritation. Contact with water or aerosols (water spray) can cause eye and respiratory irritation.

Symptoms of contact with lyngbya include:

  • skin and eye irritation (with itching, burning, pain, rash and blisters)
  • respiratory irritation (and worsening of conditions such as asthma)
  • mouth and gut irritation and oedema (swelling) with abdominal pain, inflamed mouth, inflamed oesophagus and stomach, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, a high heart rate and fever.

Workers at greater risk of being exposed to lyngbya include:

  • those in fishing, crabbing and prawning industries
  • marine researchers and professional divers
  • those involved in cleaning beaches and foreshores where algal blooms can wash up.

How do I manage the risks?

Workers and management can work together to reduce the risks from lyngbya. A safe place of work benefits everyone. Read more about good work design and how you can create safe work.

For workers

As a worker, you have a responsibility under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 to take reasonable care for your own health and safety and for others who may be affected by what you do or don’t do. You must follow any reasonable health and safety instructions from your employer. Use equipment properly, follow safe work policies and procedures, and attend training. If something is unclear, or you are uncertain, ask for an explanation.

For businesses

For employers or persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), it’s your duty to manage workplace risks, as outlined in the the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Following the four-step risk management process below will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws. Use the practical advice in the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB).

Four steps to manage risk

Manage lyngbya risks by:

  • doing a risk assessment that considers the likelihood and consequences of exposure
  • putting suitable control measures in place
  • maintaining and regularly reviewing the control measures.

Workers can be exposed to lyngbya by skin or eye contact, breathing in dried lyngbya, or swallowing dried lyngbya or contaminated water.

  1. Inspect your business

    Think about your workplace and note where your work environment or processes create the risk of exposure to lyngbya.

  2. Talk to your workers

    Talk to your workers to find out if they have any health and safety concerns. A confidential survey could give workers who are less likely to speak out in public a chance to provide feedback.

  3. Review information
  • Monitor where lyngbya blooms have occurred and their potential drift pattern.
  • Read the relevant legislation and codes of practice.
  • Research how other workplaces have managed lyngbya risks.

Find more information on how to identify risks in How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB).

If lyngbya is present, do a risk assessment to establish:

  • if there is a risk to you or others
  • whether any effective control measures are already in place
  • what actions you could take to control the risk
  • how urgently you should act.

A risk assessment can include looking at:

  • the nature of the work and how this exposes workers and others
  • whether the work is required or if it can be rescheduled to a time when the risk of exposure is reduced
  • the frequency and duration of contact.

Use this risk assessment template (DOCX, 0.02 MB) to guide and record your assessments.

After assessing the risk, use control measures to eliminate or reduce the risk. Eliminate lyngbya risks as much as reasonably possible. If this is not possible, minimise the risks.

The hierarchy of control is a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risk. It ranks risk controls from the highest level of protection and reliability through to the lowest and least reliable protection.

Implement control measures in this order:

  • Level 1: Get rid of the harm and prevent the risk.
  • Level 2: Replace the hazard with something less harmful, separate people from the hazard, or change work processes or the physical work environment.
  • Level 3: Use administrative controls to reduce exposure (such as limiting time spent in a hazardous area) or use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect people from harm.

Eliminate the risk of exposure to lyngbya:

  • Schedule work outside peak bloom periods if possible.
  • Know the locations of established blooms and the potential impact of their drift. Reschedule work around these locations if possible.

Minimise the risk of exposure to lyngbya:

  • Change work processes and redesign tasks to minimise the number of workers exposed to lyngbya.
  • Restrict public access to affected areas.
  • Avoid swimming or wading in areas where lyngbya is growing or floating in the water. Avoid direct contact with lyngbya material washed onto the beach.

Other control measures:

  • Maintain a safe system of work for contact with lyngbya.
  • Develop safe work methods for handling, storing, transporting and disposing of lyngbya.
  • Provide information, training and supervision needed to protect people from lyngbya risks.
  • Provide adequate hand-washing facilities and instruct workers to wash their hands before eating, drinking and smoking and after removing personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • Provide suitable first aid facilities for managing accidental contact with lyngbya and train workers in first aid procedures.

For seafaring work, know the locations of established blooms and be aware of the circumstances affecting their drift.

If you work in marine industries and your workers have to go into affected water, provide suitable PPE such as wet suits, stinger suits, dive booties, gloves and safety eyewear.

If you work in beach cleaning operations for lyngbya:

  • Minimise the number of workers exposed to lyngbya and restrict public access to the area.
  • Use vehicles with enclosed cabins with the air set to internal recirculation.
  • Keep the lyngbya material wet before and during operations.
  • Secure and cover lyngbya loads before transporting.
  • Stay upwind of the lyngbya where possible.
  • Provide workers with suitable PPE to prevent skin and eye contact (including enclosed footwear, long sleeves and pants, gloves and safety eyewear).
  • Provide workers with a properly fitted respirator where there is a risk of inhaling dried lyngbya material (a disposable half-facepiece P2 respirator is suitable).

Risk management is an ongoing process. Check regularly to make sure the control measures are working. If you find problems, go through the steps again, review the information and decide whether you need new controls.

Under the work health and safety laws you must review the controls:

  • when you become aware that a control measure is not working effectively
  • before a change that might create a new risk
  • when you find a new hazard or risk
  • when your workers tell you that a review is needed
  • after a health and safety representative requests a review.

Find a list to help you find issues in the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB).

What to do if a person is exposed to lyngbya

If a worker has inhaled or ingested lyngbya, or had skin or eye contact with lyngbya, provide first aid:

  • Wash areas of the body that have contacted lyngbya with soap and water as soon as possible to remove any remaining material.
  • If the eyes have had contact, flush them thoroughly with clean water or a saline solution.
  • Remove clothing (such as swimwear and wet suits) that could be trapping lyngbya. Use a cool compress to help relieve skin irritation.

Seek medical help if:

  • the eyes are affected
  • the amount and severity of irritation are causing concern
  • the person complains of respiratory discomfort after swimming in affected water or breathing in dried lyngbya material, particularly if they have an existing respiratory condition such as asthma.

Read more about first aid and emergency plans.

Notify Workplace Health and Safety Queensland if a person develops a serious illness from exposure to lyngbya (including medical treatment within 48 hours of exposure).

Standards and compliance

Work Health and Safety Act 2011

Codes of Practice

How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB)

Managing the work environment and facilities code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.57 MB)