As wildfires north of the U.S. continue to create air pollution hazards in parts of the country, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has urged U.S. employers to protect outdoor workers from wildfire hazards and poor air quality. OSHA recently shared resources and wildfire safety tips for employers with outdoor workers in time for the hot summer season. As record heat waves and wildfire seasons increase at an alarming rate, OSHA has kept pace to focus on the hazards these create in the workplace. Last year, OSHA launched its first National Emphasis Program to prevent heat-related illnesses and injuries.
Employer Duty to Protect Against Recognized Hazards
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act), which established OSHA, sets and enforces workplace safety and health standards. In doing so, it assures safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women. Notably, the OSH Act’s “General Duty Clause” requires that all employers:
- shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees; and
- shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.
To comply with the OSH Act’s General Duty Clause and to avoid willful OSHA violations and costly litigation, employers should recognize and fix common workplace hazards.
Protecting Against Wildfire Hazards and Air Pollution
Besides hazards directly associated with extreme heat and fires, the most significant danger of wildfire hazards is smoke exposure and the inhalation of particulate matter from air pollution. Specifically, particulate matter consists of miniature particles of partially burned material less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These tiny particles can enter workers’ lungs and even bloodstream. Particle inhalation can cause lung, heart, and kidney disease. Other health effects associated with wildfire hazards and air pollution include heat stress, eye and respiratory tract irritation, and poisoning from heavy metals in the atmosphere. Therefore, employers should plan for these hazards and implement procedures that include the following preventative measures:
- Frequently monitor air quality conditions reported by sources like the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow
- Relocate or reschedule work tasks to smoke-free areas.
- Reduce levels of strenuous activity and heavy work.
- Require employers to take breaks in smoke-free areas, if possible.
- Allow employees to work inside with proper HVAC systems and efficient air filters.
- Provide NIOSH-approved respirators.
Employers can find additional information on wildfire hazards on OSHA’s Wildfires webpage. Meanwhile, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provides resources for outdoor workers exposed to wildfire smoke.
State OSHA Standards for Wildfire Hazards
Some state OSHA plans, particularly in the western U.S., have either proposed emergency temporary standards for wildfire hazards or have promulgated wildfire regulations as a permanent standard. In response to record western U.S. wildfires in 2021 and the increasingly intense heatwaves and wildfire seasons of the last few years, California, Oregon, and Washington each took legislative action to require employers to protect against air pollution hazards from wildfires. Cal/OSHA’s wildfire regulation California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 5141.1, originally enacted as an emergency rule in 2019, became a permanent rule in February 2021. In July 2022, Oregon OSHA adopted its own permanent rule, OAR 437-002-1081 and OAR 437-004-9791, Protection from Wildfire Smoke. Meanwhile, Washington OSHA has proposed its own permanent wildfire smoke standard, with public hearings scheduled for July 2023.