Cal/OSHA Working on Rules to Protect Outdoor Workers from Wildfire Smoke

Cal/OSHA is developing regulations that would require employers of outdoor workers to provide 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 wildfire, 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.

Many employers want to hand out respirators to outside workers, but while there are no regulations or laws in place for how to protect your workers during smoky conditions, there are regulations governing the use of ventilators – and they are very specific.

The California Code or Regulations, Title 8, Section 5144 states requires that employers that distribute respirators to their employees must take certain steps, such as implementing a written respiratory protection program, requiring seal-testing before every use and conducting medical evaluations of all workers who will wear a respirator.

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.

What to expect

The regs are still in draft form and are unlikely to be completed this summer for the upcoming fire season. But here is what you can expect:

The draft of the regulations 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 AQI forecasts when employees may reasonably be expected to be exposed to an AQI or more than 150.
  • Establishing a system of communication with employees to inform them about the AQI, changes in conditions that can lead to bad air quality, and protective measures.
  • Training their workers in the steps they would have to take if the AQI breaches 150.
  • First-line protections that employers could implement include:
    • Engineering controls, such as providing enclosed structures or vehicles with effective filtration where employees can continue working.
    • Administrative controls like:
      • Relocating workers,
      • Changing work schedules,
      • Reducing work intensity, or
      • Giving them additional rest periods.
  • If none of the above are feasible, the rule provides for a voluntary respirator (without fit-testing and medical examinations) use when the AQI is between 150 and 300.
  • If the AQI is above 300, fit-testing and a medical examination prior to use would be mandatory.

The new regulations by Cal/OSHA are pending with the Cal/OSHA Standards Board, which is expected to vote on them in July, but it’s unclear how quickly they would be implemented.

For now, if you do have outside employees who are confronted with working in smoky conditions, you should start stockpiling a two-week supply of N95 masks for all of your workers.