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Outdoor workers gain protections from wildfire smoke

Washington one of three states with permanent wildfire smoke safety rules


The following is from the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I):

TUMWATER, Wash. (Dec. 19, 2023) — Wildfires in Washington have driven people from their homes, destroyed hundreds of structures, closed roads, and burned thousands of acres of forest and grassland across the state.

The smoke from those fires and others in the broader region is made up of tiny particles that are a hazard to outdoor workers, who can suffer significant harm when they breathe it in.

To protect workers from the dangers of breathing wildfire smoke, L&I has filed permanent wildfire smoke rules, which will take effect Jan. 15.

Washington, Oregon, and California are now the only states with permanent rules regulating most outdoor workers’ exposure to the particles in wildfire smoke, which is one of the fastest-growing pollutants.

Smoke from wildfires contains fine particles that can reach the deepest parts of the lungs, causing serious health problems. It is particularly dangerous for people who work outdoor jobs like construction, agriculture, and certain other industries. When they breathe in the tiny particles carried by the smoke, it increases the risk of reduced lung function, aggravated asthma, heart failure, and even early death.

In 2021 and 2022, L&I enacted temporary emergency wildfire smoke rules to protect workers. The new permanent rules filed this week will be in effect year-round.

“With our changing climate, we know the threat of wildfire smoke isn’t a short-term problem,” said Craig Blackwood, L&I’s assistant director for the Division of Occupational Safety and Health. “By developing year-round, permanent rules that clearly spell out the requirements employers must follow, we can help them protect workers from the hazards of wildfire smoke,” said Blackwood.

Requirements of employers

The rules require employers to be prepared for the impact wildfire smoke will have on their workers by creating a response plan, providing training to employees, monitoring smoke levels, implementing a two-way communications system, and making sure employees have access to prompt medical attention, among other items outlined in the table below.

Employers are also required to take specific action any time the amount of dangerous material in the air, known as particulate matter or current PM2.5, rises above a certain level. Employers can use indexes like the NowCast Air Quality Index (AQI) to track air quality. As air quality gets worse, employers must provide increasing protections to keep workers safe and healthy.

Reliable statewide air quality data is available online 24 hours a day. One dependable source is the Washington State Department of Ecology’s interactive air quality map. Employers and workers may also reference the Washington Smoke Information website, or the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow Fire and Smoke Map.

The table below summarizes required worker protections under the permanent rules as wildfire smoke pollution becomes more severe.

Current PM2.5 NowCast AQI for PM2.5 Required Protections
20.5-35.4 μg/m3 69 or higher · Wildfire smoke response plan
· Wildfire smoke safety training
· Emergency response measures for workers experiencing wildfire smoke symptoms
35.5-250.4 μg/m3 101 or higher · Respiratory protection required to be provided; use of respirators is voluntary
· Feasible wildfire smoke exposure controls
250.5-500.3 μg/m3 301 or higher · Respiratory protection required to be distributed to individual workers; use of respirators is voluntary
· If workers experience wildfire smoke symptoms requiring immediate medical attention, relocate them to a space with clean air
500.4-554.9 μg/m3 500 or higher · Respirators (N95 at a minimum) required to be worn by affected workers
· Full workplace respiratory protection program required
555 μg/m3 Beyond the AQI · More protective respirators are required

Additional requirements
Under the permanent rules, when workers show signs of injury or illness related to smoke, employers must determine if medical attention is needed. Employers cannot prevent workers from seeking medical attention or following medical advice they’ve been given.

L&I provides a host of free resources on the Wildfire Smoke web page, including more steps employers can take to protect the health and safety of outdoor workers.

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