Washington is under a state of emergency, with more than 600 wildfires reported already this year. That’s about double the normal rate, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Where there’s fire, there’s smoke that can expose outdoor workers in construction, agriculture, and other jobs to health risks from breathing particulate matter in the air.
To help these and other workers, the Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) filed emergency rules today to help protect employees exposed to wildfire smoke. Washington is just the second state to issue regulations regarding workers and wildfire smoke. California was the first, adopting its rules in 2019.
“This wildfire season is shaping up to be even worse than last year,” said L&I Director Joel Sacks. “We’re establishing these emergency rules to protect employees who have to work outside, breathing in smoky air all day long.”
Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases, and fine particles that can harm health. The most concerning hazard is associated with the smallest particles, or Particulate Matter (PM), that are less than 2.5 micrometers (PM 2.5). These particles can get deep into the lungs, worsening existing health conditions like asthma, negatively impacting heart health, and increasing the risk of death.
The new wildfire smoke rules spell out to employers how to identify harmful smoke exposure risks and when to notify their workers. They also require employers to:
- Train employees and supervisors about wildfire smoke;
- Ensure employees showing symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure are monitored and receive medical care when necessary; and,
- Take actions to eliminate or reduce exposures to wildfire smoke where feasible, when levels of particulate matter are high.
The rule sets the standard for dangerously poor air quality at PM 2.5 concentrations of 55.5 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) or an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 151.
Measures to eliminate or reduce worker exposure may include:
- Moving work to enclosed buildings, structures, or vehicles where the air is adequately filtered;
- Moving employees to areas with lower smoke exposure;
- Reducing work intensity;
- Providing additional rest periods; and,
- Providing employees with respirators, such as an N95 or a KN95 disposal mask at no cost for voluntary use when levels of particulate matter are high.
Although not required, L&I also recommends employers take action to reduce employee exposure to dangerous air at even lower levels of particulate matter, especially for sensitive groups with asthma or other lung conditions.
Monitoring air quality
The emergency wildfire smoke rules include several ways employers can check PM 2.5 levels. They can check sites including the EPA’s AirNow website or state Department of Ecology’s Air Monitoring Network and download mobile apps like “EPA AirNow” or “Air Quality WA.” They can also purchase equipment to check it themselves.
The emergency rules are in effect immediately (July 16, 2021); employers will be given a brief grace period before enforcement begins. L&I gathered stakeholder input and referenced California’s regulations to develop the emergency wildfire smoke rules. L&I will announce opportunities to provide input on permanent rules in the coming months.