California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal OSHA) reminds employers to be prepared to protect workers from unhealthy air before a wildfire occurs. Harmful air quality from wildfire smoke can occur anywhere in California on short notice. California experienced two of its largest wildfires in the past two years: The Dixie Fire in 2021 burned almost 1 million acres, and the August Complex fire in 2020 surpassed a million acres. More frequent and intense fires are dangerous. They emit smoke that can damage the lungs of people who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
“When wildfire smoke might affect a worksite, employers must monitor the air quality index for PM2.5 before and throughout the work shift. It is easy to track the air quality index using websites like the U.S. EPA’s AirNow or local air quality management district websites. Employers can also use their own instruments to measure PM2.5 at a worksite under Cal/OSHA’s requirements.”
If the air is unhealthy, employers must provide proper respiratory protection like N95 respirators for voluntary use if work cannot be moved to a location where the air is not harmful. “If employers cannot move operations to areas where air is adequately filtered and they do not have access to respiratory protection, they may need to halt operations until the outdoor air quality improves. Employer responsibilities include outdoor worksites and indoor locations where the air is not filtered, or doors are kept open such as warehouses, packing, manufacturing, distribution facilities and more.”
If the AQI for PM2.5 is 151 or greater, employers must take these steps to protect employees:
- Communication – Inform employees of the AQI for PM2.5 and the protective measures available.
- Training and Instruction – Provide effective training and instruction to all employees on the information in section 5141.1 Appendix B.
- Modifications – Implement modifications to the workplace, if feasible, to reduce exposure. Examples include providing enclosed structures or vehicles for employees to work in, where the air is filtered.
- Changes – Implement practicable changes to work procedures or schedules.