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Emergency Rule Protects Outdoor Workers from Wildfire Smoke


August 5, 2021  by  Leah LaCivita
Category:  Fire Protection New Legislation and Regulations Operating Policies

Emergency Rule Protects Outdoor Workers from Wildfire Smoke

On July 16, 2021, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) approved an emergency rule (WAC 296-62-085) to protect workers from wildfire smoke, including requiring employers to train employees and supervisors about wildfire smoke and take actions to eliminate or reduce exposures to wildfire smoke where feasible.

The new rule took effect immediately and applies to any workplace “where the employer should reasonably anticipate that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke." L&I is also developing a permanent rule and will be seeking stakeholder input as part of the permanent rule-making process.

This blog will provide an overview of the new rule and background on its origin.

The Dangers of Wildfire Smoke

Wildfire smoke is one of the main sources of outdoor smoke in Washington, alongside wood stoves, pellet stoves, and fireplaces, agricultural burning, and prescribed burning (used to manage forests). Smoke, in turn, produces particulate matter (PM).

Particulate matter is categorized by size because different sizes have different health effects. PM10 particles, less than 10 microns in size, can irritate your nose and eyes, but the primary pollutants generated by wildfire smoke are the tiny PM2.5 particles (generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller), which are so small that they can bypass the body’s defenses, get into the lungs, and may eventually enter the bloodstream.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies several groups that are more sensitive to smoke exposure, including

  • People with asthma or respiratory infections;
  • People with heart or circulatory problems or a prior history of heart attack or stroke;
  • People with diabetes (they are more likely to have an undiagnosed cardiovascular disease);
  • Infants and children under 18 (their lungs and airways are still developing, and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults);
  • Adults over age 65 (they are more likely to have unrecognized heart or lung diseases);
  • Pregnant women;
  • People with low socioeconomic status (they are more likely to have higher exposures and less likely to have access to healthcare); and
  • Outdoor workers (they are more likely to be exposed to high concentrations of wildfire smoke for extended periods of time).

L&I noted in its rulemaking order WSR 21-15-067 that its Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) had been fielding questions about smoke hazards for outdoor workers for the past several summers, all of which have been marked by intense wildfire seasons.

Preparing for Wildfire Smoke

L&I’s emergency rule requires employers to develop systems and procedures for informing staff about PM2.5 levels, train staff and supervisors on the dangers of poor air quality, mitigate exposure to and the impact of wildfire smoke on employees, and ensure that care can be accessed if an employee falls ill.

Of particular note, employers need to develop exposure controls to mitigate exposure to wildfire smoke. These controls can include:

  • Moving work to enclosed structures or vehicles where air is adequately filtered;
  • Moving employees to areas with lower smoke exposure;
  • Reducing work intensity; and
  • Providing additional rest periods; and,
  • Providing employees with respirators, at no cost for voluntary use

Wildfire smoke must be adressed in an employer's written accident prevention program: The written program and employee training must include, at a minimum, this information from WAC 296-62-08590 Appendix B:

  • Potential health effects for the general population and sensitive groups,
  • The right to seek medical treatment without fear of reprisal,
  • How employees can obtain current air quality data,
  • The employer’s obligations and plans under this emergency rule, and
  • The importance, limitations, benefits, and proper use of employer-provided respirators.

The training for supervisors must cover the same information provided to employees, as well as procedures the supervisor must follow, what to do if an employee exhibits signs of smoke-related illness, and procedures for transporting employees to an emergency medical service provider if necessary.

Measuring Air Quality at the Worksite

EPA sets and reviews national air quality standards for particulate matter via the Air Quality Index (AQI) and PM NowCast, a weighted average of hourly air monitoring data to provide real-time reporting of the AQI.

The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) created a PM monitoring tool known as the Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA). Both WAQA and the AQI use the same air quality data, but WAQA uses lower thresholds for identifying potential health hazards — meaning levels at which sensitive groups could experience adverse health effects.

If employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke, the employer must — before and periodically during the shift — check one of the web-based air quality sources listed in the rule (including the state-specific Washington Smoke Information, WAQA, or the AirQualityWA app) or directly measure PM2.5 at the worksite.

During poor air quality periods (WAQA 101-172 or AQI 69-150)

At PM2.5 concentrations at the level of 20.5 μg/m3 (AQI of 69-150 or WAQA of 101-172), those in sensitive groups may experience ill effects due to smoke exposure, such as a runny nose, and may develop respiratory problem. At this level employers are required to:

  • Establish and implement a two-way system for communicating with employees on air quality conditions, exposure risks, and required controls, and for receiving employee concerns per air quality issues;
  • Train supervisors on the hazards of wildfire smoke, including how to spot if employee exhibits signs of smoke inhalation and how/when an impacted employee should be taken for care;
  • Train supervisors on procedures regarding the employer’s plan for ensuring workers are protected from wildfire smoke, including when to implement exposure controls; and
  • Train employees on the dangers of wildfire smoke exposure and what protective measures are available, including use of respirators, such as an N95 or a KN95 mask.

Additionally, at this level, employers are encouraged but not required to provide respirators to employees and must allow employees to bring and use their own respirators, if desired.

During dangerously poor air quality periods (WAQA of 173+ or AQI of 151+)

When PM2.5 concentrations reach 55.5 μg/m3 (AQI of 151 or WAQA of 173), many experience ill effects to smoke exposure, such as runny nose, watery eyes, or coughing, while those in sensitive groups may experience pronounced respiratory difficulties.

At this level employers are required to:

  • Alert employees that the air is considered hazardous,
  • Implement exposure controls and make employees aware of these, 
  • Encourage employees to inform the employer of worsening air quality or any adverse symptoms, and
  • Provide respirators to employees, though use of one is voluntary.

Employees injured or made ill by exposure to wildfire smoke must be allowed to seek treatment without fear of punishment. Employers should also put in place provisions that allow for prompt medical treatment of any employee seriously injured or made ill due to wildfire smoke exposure.

Exceptions

The new rule does not apply to the following workplaces and/or employees:

  • Enclosed buildings or structures in which the employer ensures that windows, doors, bays, and other exterior openings are kept closed, except when it is necessary to open doors to enter and exit;
  • Enclosed vehicles in which the air is filtered by a cabin air filter and the employer ensures that windows, doors, and other openings are kept closed;
  • Employees exposed to a concentration of PM2.5 of 20.5 μg/m3 (AQI of 69 or WAQA of 101) for a total of one hour or less during a shift; and
  • Firefighters engaged in wildland firefighting.

Enforcement Dates

While the new rule took effect immediately, L&I provided a couple of weeks for implementation prior to enforcing these rules. However, all provisions of the rule are now being enforced: July 23 was the deadline by which employers had to distribute respirators to eligible staff and to develop a worksite-based plan for monitoring and limiting worker exposure to dangerously poor air quality. August 2 was the deadline for training supervisors and employees on wildfire smoke hazards and the for the employer to have a plan in place for monitoring and mitigating exposure to these hazards.

Washington is just the second state to issue regulations regarding workers and wildfire smoke. California was the first in 2019.

Questions?

If you have questions about this rule, L&I has provided the following contact information:


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Leah LaCivita

Leah joined MRSC as a Communications Coordinator in the fall of 2016 and manages MRSC’s blog and webinar training program, in addition to developing website content.

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