Proposed wildfire smoke rules would protect workers from dangers of aggravated asthma, heart failure, early death

May 11, 2023

TUMWATER — Wildfires in Washington have become more severe and more frequent; a trend likely to continue with the changing climate.

The smoke wildfires generate is particularly dangerous for people who work outdoor jobs like construction, agriculture, roofing, roadwork, and certain other industries. When they breathe in the tiny particles carried by the smoke, it increases the risk of reduced lung function, aggravated asthma, heart failure, and even early death.

To protect these workers, this week the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries filed proposed permanent wildfire smoke rules and launched a formal process for public input.

NowCast Air Quality Index (AQI) for small particles of dangerous material, known as PM 2.5, is 69 or higher. As air quality gets worse, employers must provide increasing protections to keep workers safe and healthy.

Summary of proposed requirements

The table below summarizes required worker protections under the proposed rules as wildfire smoke pollution becomes more severe.

NowCast AQI
for PM 2.5
Required Protections
69 or higher
  • Wildfire smoke response plan
  • Wildfire smoke safety training
  • Emergency response measures for workers experiencing wildfire smoke symptoms​
101 or higher
  • Respiratory protection required to be provided; use of respirators is voluntary
  • Feasible wildfire smoke exposure controls
  • 301 or higher
    • Respiratory protection required to be distributed to individual workers; use of respirators is voluntary
    • If workers experience wildfire smoke symptoms requiring medical attention, relocate them to a space with clean air​
    500 or higher
    • Respirators (N95 at a minimum) required to be worn by affected workers
    • Full workplace respiratory protection program required​
    Beyond the AQI
    • N95 is not sufficiently protective at this level; more protective respirators are required​

    Additional requirements

    Under the proposed permanent rules, employers must monitor the air quality and alert workers when it exceeds certain exposure thresholds. When workers show signs of injury or illness related to smoke, employers must monitor them to determine if medical care is needed. Employers cannot prevent workers from seeking medical treatment.

    Reliable statewide air quality data is available online 24 hours a day. The Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow Fire and Smoke Map is a good source for employers to track the NowCast AQI for PM 2.5.

    Public input opportunities

    Before the anticipated adoption of final rules in July, L&I will conduct six in-person public hearings in Spokane, Kennewick, Bellingham, Vancouver, Tukwila, and Yakima, and one virtual public hearing to take comments. There are details on how to attend the hearings or submit comments by mail, fax, or email, on L&I’s rulemaking activity page. Public comments will be accepted through 5 p.m. on Aug. 4.

    L&I will review and consider submitted comments before making any adjustments and adopting permanent rules.

    More ways to protect workers

    During the rulemaking process, employers still must take steps to protect their workers from exposure to wildfire smoke. To meet that responsibility, L&I encourages employers to follow safety measures including:

    • Training workers on wildfire smoke hazards.
    • Monitoring air quality.
    • Providing adequate respiratory protection—along with training on proper use.
    • Monitoring workers for symptoms of exposure.
    • Reducing, rescheduling, or relocating work.
    • Reducing the work intensity or increasing rest periods.

    L&I provides a host of free resources on its Wildfire Smoke web page, including more steps employers can take to protect the health and safety of outdoor workers.

    For media information:

    Matt Ross, L&I Public Affairs, 360-706-4857.

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