California wildfires: employers reminded to protect outdoor workers from unhealthy air

Cal/OSHA reminds employers to follow the California Wildfire Smoke Protection Standard, which requires them to take steps to protect their workers from the unhealthy air caused by wildfire smoke. Harmful air quality from wildfire smoke is currently affecting Northern California and can occur anywhere in the state on short notice.

The Protection from Wildfire Smoke standard applies to most construction sites where the air cannot be filtered and the air quality index for PM2.5 is 151 or higher due to smoke from Forest fires. To help employers prepare and help their workers, Cal/OSHA has created an informational web page with all requirements and free documents hosted at www.WildfireSmokeCalifornia.org and www.HumodeIncendios.org.

When wildfire smoke may affect a workplace, employers should monitor the air quality index (AQI) for PM2.5 before and during the shift. It’s easy to track the AQI using websites like the US EPA’s AirNow or local air quality management district websites. Employers may also use their own instruments to measure PM2.5 on a job site per Cal/OSHA requirements.

If the air is unhealthy due to wildfire smoke, employers should provide appropriate respiratory protection, such as voluntary N95 respirators, if work cannot be moved to an area where the air is not is not harmful. If employers cannot move operations to areas where the air is properly filtered and they do not have access to respiratory protection, they may have to halt operations until the air quality exterior is improving.

This includes outdoor job sites and indoor locations where air is not filtered or doors are kept open, such as warehouses, packaging facilities, manufacturing, distribution, etc.

Workers need to be educated about the health effects of wildfire smoke. Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases and fine particles that can harm health. The greatest danger comes from breathing in fine particles in the air (called PM2.5), which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma or other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, breathing wheezing and breathing difficulties.

If the AQI for PM2.5 is 151 or higher, employers should take these steps to protect employees:

  • Communication – Inform employees of the AQI for PM2.5 and the protective measures available to them.
  • Training and Instruction – Provide effective training and instruction to all employees on the information in Section 5141.1 Appendix B.
  • Modifications – Implement modifications to the workplace, if possible, to reduce exposure. Examples include providing enclosed structures or vehicles that employees can work in, where the air is filtered.
  • Changes – Implement practical changes to procedures or work schedules. Examples include changing where employees work or reducing the time they work outdoors or exposing them to unfiltered outdoor air.
  • Respiratory Protection – Provide appropriate respiratory protective equipment, such as disposable respirators, for voluntary use.
    • To filter fine particles, respirators should be labeled N-95, N-99, N-100, R-95, P-95, P-99, or P-100, and must be labeled as approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

If the AQI for PM2.5 exceeds 500 due to wildfire smoke, the use of a respirator is required. Employers must ensure employees use respirators and implement a respiratory protection program as required by the California Respiratory Standard. For information or assistance in developing a respiratory protection program, see Cal/OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Fact Sheet.

Guidance for employers and workers on wildfire smoke, cleanup, and other hazards is available on the Cal/OSHA webpage along with frequently asked questions about N95 respirators.

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