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Wildfire smoke and Washington workers


The information on this page is intended to help employers keep their workers safe. Employers can use this information to protect their workers from the effects of wildfire smoke. These recommendations are encouraged for the safety of both indoor and outdoor workers. Keeping workers safe and healthy is good for business and good for Washington.

Wildfire smoke contains many hazardous chemicals that are harmful to our health. It can affect the lungs, worsening asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis and pneumonia. Wildfire smoke can affect the heart, and increase the risk of heart attack. What's in wildfire smoke varies depending upon what's burning, location, environmental conditions, smoke age and other factors.

Common symptoms related to wildfire smoke exposure

For healthy workers, wildfire smoke can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. It can also cause headaches and worsening of allergies.

Workers with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other chronic diseases who breathe wildfire smoke may also experience shortness of breath, persistent cough, wheeze, chest tightness, and increased mucous production.

Different people will experience different effects. Important factors to consider include:

  • amount of smoke – limit as much as feasible
  • duration of exposure – limit as much as feasible
  • level of physical exertion – high exertion can increase air intake as much as 20 times

Workers and conditions with increased risk include:

  • Workers with current heart or lung disease.  People with high blood pressure and heart disease may experience chest pain, heart attack or heart failure. People with pre-existing asthma and COPD may experience an attack or worsening of their condition with sudden shortness of breath. They may need relief through cleaner air, medication, and/or emergency care.
  • Workers 65 and older. Older workers are more likely to have heart or lung disease, and are more likely to feel health effects.
  • Hazardous work. Hazardous tasks, such as working at height or operating heavy machinery, can be more dangerous in smoky conditions. While the tasks may seem routine, any worker can be hampered with health irritations or reduced breathing, reduced visibility, or increased temperatures. These factors may make hazardous work harder to complete safely.  
  • Remote or lone workers. Workers far from emergency medical aid or without nearby co-workers need reliable communication and emergency plans.

 

Determining air quality

Washington State provides outdoor air information that can help employers know when outside air may be harmful. Visit the Washington Smoke blog (wasmoke.blogspot.com) for current air quality conditions and smoke forecasts, and pay attention to local news for air quality reports in your area.

The WA Smoke Blog shows the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Air Quality Index (AQI) mapped for Washington. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries does not enforce the EPA Air Quality Index as a regulatory standard. The EPA's Air Quality Standard is one practical way to understand current air quality in real-time. Use of the AQI is recommended as a voluntary best-practice guideline to inform employers' decisions.

The AQI indicates when the outdoor air quality is "unhealthy", "very unhealthy", or "hazardous." These ratings signal when healthy workers may begin to experience adverse health effects. Additional factors to consider when determining if the outdoor air is harmful include how long workers are outside, the level of physical exertion, symptoms consistent with wildfire smoke exposure, and pre-existing medical conditions.

The Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA) also provides useful air quality information.

Protecting outdoor workers

When outdoor air quality is considered unhealthy or hazardous, a good way to minimize health risks is to reduce contact time with the smoke. Keep in mind, workers may also be affected by high temperatures, and some workers may be more susceptible than others to poor air quality. To the extent practical, consider the following best practices:

  • Relocate work to less smoky areas
  • Reschedule work until the air quality improves
  • Reduce the level or duration of physical exertion
  • Where feasible, provide enclosed structures for employees to work in, where the air is filtered
  • Where feasible, provide enclosed vehicles. In poor air quality, operate the air conditioning in "recirculate" mode and keep vents and windows closed

Protecting indoor workers

Wildfire smoke can also be a hazard for indoor workers. The following steps can improve indoor air quality:

  • Ensure the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) system is working properly and that air filters are clean and properly seated.
  • Ask an HVAC technician for the highest filtration rating your HVAC system will support and use the highest rating possible when smoke is present. Filters with high filtration ratings require more frequent change-outs, but they can improve air quality.
  • Consult with a qualified HVAC technician or ventilation engineer before reducing building air intake to ensure the air pressure within the building remains slightly positive. If the indoor air pressure becomes lower than outdoor pressure, pollution will enter the building through the exhaust system and other openings.
  • Portable high efficiency HEPA air cleaners can improve air quality in small, defined spaces. Do not use ozone generators, personal air purifiers, or electrostatic precipitators and ionizers that produce ozone. Ozone is an irritant that worsens lung disease.
  • Keep air clean, don't smoke, use candles or vacuum.

Respirators

When chosen and worn correctly, respirators can reduce exposure to wildfire smoke. One common type of respirator suitable for protection against ambient wildfire smoke is an N95 filtering facepiece mask.

  • Workers with breathing problems like asthma or COPD or with chronic heart and lung disease should ask their doctor whether they can wear a dust mask or a respirator. Respirators restrict breathing and put stress on the heart and lungs, which may worsen health symptoms.
  • Workers may ask to voluntarily wear a dust mask. Dust masks labeled as 'NIOSH approved' and/or labeled as N95 or N100 are considered respirators, and can provide protection.
    • Dust masks with a single strap behind the head and surgical masks do not protect against fine smoke particles and should not be chosen.
    • Facial hair that lies along the sealing area of a respirator (beards, sideburns, moustache) will interfere with a good facial seal and allow particulates to leak into the breathing area.
  • Washington employers will need to follow L&I's respiratory protection rules if they require employees to wear a respirator. This includes medical evaluation and fit testing. See WAC 296-842 for more information.
  • Learn more about respiratory protection from wildfire smoke with L&I's Wildfire Smoke and Dust Masks at Work.

What if a worker becomes ill from wildfire smoke exposure?

Workers who believe their health has been impacted by wildfire smoke should file claims and undergo a medical evaluation. Workers should go to the emergency room or health-care provider of their choice, and explain they were exposed to wildfire smoke at work. The health-care provider may help them file a claim.

Instructions for filing a claim are available at https://www.lni.wa.gov/ClaimsIns/Claims/File/default.asp or by calling 877-561-FILE. Those who work for self-insured employers should file claims directly with them. More information about self-insured employers is available at https://www.lni.wa.gov/ClaimsIns/Insurance/SelfInsure/EmpList/Default.asp

For claims filed following exposure to wildfire smoke, L&I or the self-insured employer will evaluate the individual circumstances in each case to make a decision. The criteria for claim allowance depend on whether the medical condition is determined to be an occupational injury or an occupational disease. L&I or the self-insured employer can approve claims if the medical provider certifies that the worker was injured at a specific time and place at work, or has an occupational disease. Benefits cover medical bills. and may also include replacement of lost wages, return-to-work help, and disability or a pension for the severely injured who cannot go back to work. However, even if a claim is denied, the first doctor visit is paid by L&I or the self-insured employer.

Claims may be denied if the medical provider cannot certify the worker's medical condition is related to work. This legal standard frequently requires the claim manager to collect background information about the incident or exposure at work, and the worker's medical and job history.

Workers' Rights

Workers entitled to Washington State's paid sick leave protections may be entitled to use accrued paid sick leave to care for themselves or a family member whose health has been affected from exposure to wildfire smoke and/or high temperatures. Workers may also use accrued paid sick leave if their child's school or place of care, or the employer's business or worksite has been shut down by a public official for health reasons related to wildfire smoke and/or high temperatures.

Employers may not discipline or retaliate against employees who lawfully use accrued paid sick leave. This includes employers adopting or enforcing any policy that counts the use of accrued paid sick leave as an absence against the employee that may result in discipline.

Workers can file safety, wage, hour, and leave complaints at https://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/TrainingPrevention/Help/ReportHazards/default.asp, contacting any L&I office, or by calling 1-800-4BESAFE, 1-800-423-7233.

For more information about WA State's paid sick leave protections, see the following link: https://www.lni.wa.gov/WorkplaceRights/LeaveBenefits/VacaySick/PaidSickLeave.asp

Additional Resources

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