If your workplace is in an area affected by the wildfires, you must take actions to protect your employees in the event that the air quality reaches a specific level. With large wildfires, smoke becomes airborne and travels far beyond the immediate fire zone, filling the air in many communities and even across states. The smoke from this years wildfires has drifted over 3000 miles causing hazy conditions that can be seen even on the east coast. The smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases and fine particles that can cause harm to your health. Breathing in these fine particles can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions. Additionally, it can cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.
With exceptions, emergency regulation section 5141.1, Protection from Wildfire Smoke, applies to workplaces and operations where the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5 particulate is 151 or greater (“unhealthy”) and where the employer should reasonably anticipate that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke. California’s wildfire smoke regulation is designed to protect employees who work in these areas. The smoke regulation requires employers to do the following:
- Monitor the Air Quality Index (AQI) for particulate matter 2.5 (PM 2.5) in regions where workers are located. You can check the AQI in your region using the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Now tool. You will just need to enter the ZIP code for the air quality reading for your workplace region and be sure to check your area’s AQI throughout the day.
- Take steps to reduce exposure to smoke when the AQI for PM 2.5 is above 150. In this case, you should implement a system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards in a form readily understandable by all affected employees as well as relocating the employees to an enclosed building or vehicle with filtered air if possible. You can also send them to a different location where the AQI for PM 2.5 is below 15.
- The employer must provide respirators for employee use on a voluntary basis when the current AQI for PM2.5 is equal to or greater than 150 but less than 500. The employer must require employees to use respirators when the current AQI for PM2.5 is greater than 500. If the current AQI is less than 151, the employer may provide filtering facepiece respirators (dust masks) to employees or allow employees to bring their own.
It is important to note that it takes more effort to breathe through a respirator and it can also increase the risk of succumbing to heat stress. This is why Cal/OSHA advises employees who are using respirators to take frequent breaks. Workers who are feeling dizzy, faint, or nauseated should immediately go to a clean area, take off their respirator, and get medical attention.
On behalf of the SCM/HazMat School team, we are so thankful to all of the first responders who are working tirelessly to keep our communities safe. We are forever grateful for your bravery.