Cal/OSHA Issues Emergency Rules to Protect Workers from Wildfire Smoke

Cal/OSHA Issues Emergency Rules to Protect Workers from Wildfire Smoke

Cal/OSHA has issued emergency regulations that require employers of outdoor workers to take protective measures, including providing respiratory equipment, when air quality is significantly affected by wildfires.

Smoke from wildfires can travel hundreds of miles and while an area may not be in danger of the fire, the smoke can be thick and dangerous, reaching unhealthy levels. The danger is worst for people with underlying health conditions like heart disease, asthma or other respiratory issues.

Cal/OSHA decided to start work on the new regulations after worker groups filed a petition asking the agency to step in and protect people working outside from unsafe air quality caused by wildfires.

Below is all you need to know about the new emergency regulations that are slated to take effect in early August 2019.

What to expect

The draft of the regulations, which were approved at a July 18 Cal/OSH board hearing, would require that employers take action when the Air Quality Index (AQI) for particulate matter 2.5 is more than 150, which is considered in the “unhealthy” range.

The protections would also be triggered when a government agency issues a wildfire smoke advisory or there when there is a “realistic possibility” that workers would be exposed to wildfire smoke.

All California employers with “a worker who is outdoors for more than an hour cumulative over the course of their shift” would be required to comply with these regulations:

Checking the Air Quality Index – Employers of outdoor works must check the AQI at the worksite to see if it is above 150, which would require the employer to take protective measures for the workers. AQI can be checked in the following ways:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow website.
  • The California Air Resources Board website.
  • Your local air pollution control district website.
  • Checking PM2.5 levels at the worksite and converting them to the corresponding AQI (Appendix A of the regulations explain how).

Communications – Employers must establish and implement a system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards to affected employees, including allowing employees to inform the employer of such hazards at the worksite. Communications should include:

  • The current AQI for PM2.5.
  • Protective measures available to workers to reduce their wildfire smoke exposure.
  • Encouraging employees to inform the employer of worsening job site air quality.
  • Reporting symptoms such as asthma attacks, difficulty breathing and chest pain.

Training – Employers with outside works should train them in:

  • The health effects of wildfire smoke.
  • The right to obtain medical treatment without fear of reprisal.
  • How employees can obtain the current AQI for PM2.5.
  • The requirements in Cal/OSHA’s regulation about wildfire smoke.
  • The employer’s communication system.
  • The employer’s methods to protect employees from wildfire smoke.
  • The importance, limitations and benefits of using a respirator when exposed to wildfire smoke.
  • How to properly put on, use and maintain the respirators provided by the employer.

Suitable protection – There are a number of methods employers can implement to protect workers when the AQI for PM2.5 exceeds 150.

  • Engineering controls, such as providing enclosed structures or vehicles with effective filtration where employees can continue working, or
  • Administrative controls like:
  • Relocating workers,
  • Changing work schedules,
  • Reducing work intensity, or
  • Giving them additional rest periods, or
  • Respiratory protective equipment. The employer must provide respirators to all employees for voluntary use, and encourage them to use them.

Respirators shall be NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)-approved devices that effectively protect the wearers from inhalation of PM2.5, such as N95 filtering face-piece respirators. Respirators shall be cleaned, stored, maintained and replaced so that they do not present a health hazard to users.

Where the current AQI for PM2.5 is 501 or greater, respirator use is required.

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