Worker Health and Smoke
Breathing in wildfire smoke can lead to a range of health problems. These include:
- Persistent coughing
- Difficulty breathing
- Reduced lung function
- Aggravated asthma
- Heart failure, and
- Early death
Some employees have an even higher risk of health effects from smoke exposure. Health factors such as heart and lung disease, tobacco use, diabetes, pregnancy, and even a worker’s age can all put a worker at higher risk of adverse health effects when working near wildfire smoke.
Checking Local Air Quality
There are many useful sources of real-time air quality information. Some popular sources include online tools such as:
- AirNow.gov from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Air Quality Map from the Washington State Department of Ecology, and
- U.S. Forest Service tools
Air Quality Scores – PM2.5, WAQA, and AQI
Different air quality sources use real-time data to create an air quality score. Some sources measure airborne particulate matter (such as PM2.5) directly, whereas other sources will use the Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA) or the Air Quality Index (AQI).
No matter which metric you use, the table below indicates the thresholds at which wildfire smoke precautions must be taken by employers and employees.
|PM2.5 in micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3)||Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA)||Air Quality Index (AQI)|
Respiratory Protection from Wildfire Smoke
When working near wildfire smoke is unavoidable, a properly selected respirator can significantly reduce a worker’s exposure to wildfire smoke. A common respirator choice in this situation is to wear a filtering facepiece respirator, such as an N95. The employer may choose to provide more robust respiratory protection options (such as elastomeric respirators or powered air-purifying respirators) at their discretion. For the summer 2021 Wildfire Smoke Emergency Rule, KN95 respirators are also acceptable.
Items such as bandanas, scarves, or t-shirts worn over the nose and mouth will not provide sufficient protection against wildfire smoke.
Face masks can be helpful in reducing the spread of respiratory droplets and can prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as COVID-19. However, a face mask will not provide sufficient protection against wildfire smoke.
If you currently wear a face mask at work to prevent COVID-19 and are also working near wildfire smoke, a properly worn respirator such as an N95 or KN95 will provide robust protection against both wildfire smoke and infection from COVID-19.
Responding to Health Effects from Wildfire Smoke
Workers need to alert their employer if they experience any health effect from wildfire smoke exposure. In severe cases, workers may need immediate medical treatment. Employers are never allowed to retaliate against an employee for reporting an air quality hazard, an adverse health effect or for seeking medical treatment due to a work-related illness or injury.
Wildfire Smoke Emergency Rule
In general, covered employers must:
- Include wildfire smoke precautions in their Accident Prevention Program. A template has been provided to guide employers in effectively implementing these precautions.
- Determine employee exposure to PM2.5 before and periodically during each shift when smoke is present.
- Train employees who work near wildfire smoke with PM2.5 levels of 20.5 μg/m3 (WAQA 101, AQI 69) or more.
- Inform employees of available protective measures against wildfire smoke.
- Encourage employees to report worsening air quality and any health effects resulting from poor air quality.
- Be prepared to respond appropriately to any employee with symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure.
When wildfire smoke conditions are particularly severe (minimum AQI 151, WAQA 173, PM2.5 55.5 µg/m3), employers must:
- Alert employees of the air quality hazard.
- Implement feasible exposure controls to protect workers from wildfire smoke.
- Provide respirators and encourage their voluntary use.
Other L&I Rules
- Wildfire smoke online training
- Wildfire smoke Accident Prevention Program (APP) addendum template
- Improving Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality during Wildfire Smoke Events (Dept. of Health)
- Outdoor Heat Exposure (Heat Stress) topic search
- Protecting workers from wildfire smoke exposure: best practices (F101-190-000)
- Recommendations for wildfire smoke and COVID-19 during the 2021 wildfire season (Dept. of Health)
- Wildfire Smoke - What To Do if a Worker Becomes Ill (F101-191-000)
- Wildfire Smoke Safety (Pacific Northwest Agriculture Safety & Health Center at UW)