An irrigation system waters a field with barely-visible mountains in the background and the sky filled with wildfire smoke.

Wildfire Smoke & Workplace Safety and Health

Wildfire smoke contains a mixture of harmful chemicals and particles. This smoke can make anyone sick, even healthy individuals.

Exposure to the small particles in wildfire smoke can cause mild to serious symptoms, including:

  • Respiratory: Cough, difficulty breathing, wheezing, shortness of breath; asthma attack, runny nose, sore throat, sinus pain or pressure; phlegm.
  • Cardiovascular: Chest pain or discomfort, fast or irregular heartbeat, feeling weak, light-headed, faint, or dizzy; or pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back.
  • Symptoms concerning for a stroke: Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg – especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion; trouble speaking or difficulty understanding speech; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination; sudden severe headache with no known cause.
  • Headache, scratchy or irritated eyes, fatigue or tiredness.
Overview

Getting Started

Smoke levels can change frequently during the wildfire season. Planning ahead and keeping track of the air quality can protect the health of your outdoor workers.

Wildfire smoke is measured in two ways:

  • As PM2.5 which is extremely small particles measured in micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3). PM2.5 essentially means fine particulate matter.
  • NowCast AQI PM2.5 which is an index produced by the EPA to communicate general air quality based on PM2.5. AQI stands for “air quality index”.

Common online tools you can use to check the current air quality include:

L&I is working with the Dept. of Ecology on a new interactive map showing PM2.5 exposures to outdoor workplaces covered by L&I's wildfire smoke rules. This tool is still under active development. For general air quality monitoring, use the Dept. of Ecology link above. 

Send comments and questions about this tool to EyeOnSafety@lni.wa.gov.

Limit outdoor work at high levels of wildfire smoke.

Some ways to protect workers from wildfire smoke include:

  • Providing enclosed buildings, structures, or vehicles where the air is adequately filtered.
  • Providing portable HEPA filters in enclosed areas.
  • Relocating work to a location with a lower smoke level.
  • Changing work schedules to a time with a lower smoke level.
  • Avoiding or reducing work that creates additional dust, fumes, or smoke (for example limiting welding, sanding, sawing, spray painting, etc.).
  • Reducing work intensity.
  • Providing additional rest periods.

Respirators filter the air to protect worker’s lungs.

Demonstration of respirator fit - Check face seal, tighten nose clip; Place straps against head; shave facial hair; The mask should feel snug all around your face.Properly fitted respirators can significantly reduce a worker’s exposure to wildfire smoke. At certain levels of wildfire smoke, employers are required to provide a NIOSH approved N95 respirator to employees. More protective respirators can be provided as well.

Bandanas, scarves, facemasks, KN95’s, or t-shirts worn over the nose and mouth will not provide protection against wildfire smoke. A NIOSH approved N95 respirator is the minimum protection from wildfire smoke.

Working in wildfire smoke can make people sick.

Workers need to alert their employer if they experience any health effects from wildfire smoke exposure. This is so they can be monitored in case their symptoms worsen. In severe cases, workers may need emergency medical attention, or may need to follow the medical advice they have been given.

Employers are not allowed to retaliate against an employee for reporting an air quality hazard, a health effect, or for seeking medical treatment due to a work-related illness or injury.

Review the Wildfire Smoke Standard linked in the Requirements & Policies section of this webpage to see how employees must be protected from wildfire smoke.

Requirements & Policies

Rules

The following table summarizes the key requirements of the wildfire smoke rule for covered employers.
Current PM2.5 (μg/m3) NowCast Air Quality Index for PM2.5 until May 6, 2024 NowCast Air Quality Index for PM2.5 Beginning May 6, 2024 Required Protections
0.0 - 20.4 0 - 68 0 - 71​
  • Prepare a written wildfire smoke response plan.
  • Provide wildfire smoke training to employees.
  • Watch the PM2.5 conditions and forecasts.
  • Prepare a two-way communication system.
  • Make provisions for prompt medical attention, and permit that medical attention without retaliation.
  • 20.5 - 35.4 69 - 100 72 - 100​ All of the above and:
    • Notify employees of PM2.5 conditions.
    • Ensure only trained employees work outdoors.
    • Consider implementing exposure controls
    • Consider providing voluntary use respirators.
    35.5 - 250.4 101 - 300 101 - 350​ All of the above and:
    • Implement exposure controls.​
    • Make N95 respirators available for voluntary use.​
    250.5 - 500.3 301 - 499 351 - 848​​ All of the above and:
    • Ensure workers experiencing symptoms requiring immediate medical attention be moved to a location that ensures sufficient clean air.
    • Directly distribute N95 respirators to employees for voluntary use.
    500.4 - 554.9 500 - beyond the AQI 849 - 956​ All of the above and:
    • Implement a complete required use respiratory protection program, including fit-testing, medical evaluations, requiring employees to be clean-shaven, and requiring the use of particulate respirators.​
     555 or more Beyond the AQI 957 or more​ All of the above and:
    • Require respirators with an assigned protection factor (APF) of 25 or more.​ 

    Other L&I rules

    Enforcement policies

    Need Help?  L&I's safety and health consultants can help you understand and comply with the wildfire smoke regulations.

    Training & Resources

    Employers covered under the Wildfire Smoke Rules must provide workers with training on wildfire smoke before exposing them to a PM2.5 concentration of 20.5 µg/m3 (AQI 69) or more. Training needs to be done before smoke exposure and repeated every year.

    The information and training section of the wildfire smoke rules (WAC 296-820-825) provides more information about employee wildfire smoke training requirements.

    Training Templates and Sample Plan

    Ensure you are meeting employee and supervisor training requirements by reviewing the requirements in the wildfire smoke rules (Wildfire Smoke Rule, General Industry -Chapter 296-820 WAC; Wildfire Smoke for Agriculture - WAC 296-307-09805 through 296-307-09860).

    Download the Wildfire Smoke course materials:

    Self-paced version

    An online, interactive version of the wildfire smoke training is available.

    Air Quality Information

    General Wildfire Smoke Safety

    Indoor Air Quality

    Workers Compensation

    Questions & Answers

    Wildfire Smoke Rules - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

    These questions and answers are based on the Wildfire Smoke Rules adopted December 14, 2023, and effective January 15, 2024.

    Scope

    Who must comply with the Wildfire Smoke Rules?

    The wildfire smoke rules apply to employers that have employees working in outdoor environments. Employers in industry sectors including agriculture, construction, forestry, utilities, transportation, and others may be impacted by the rules.

    Indoor workplaces, where doors and windows remain closed, are not covered by this rule.

    Workplaces where doors or windows are opened frequently, such as public transportation, are not exempt from the rules, as these locations can have similar air quality to the outdoors.

    How do the rules apply to prescribed burns?

    The wildfire smoke rules do not apply to wildland firefighters or to other workers performing prescribed burns. However, the rules do apply to workplaces impacted by smoke from prescribed fires. The definition of “wildfire smoke” in the rules includes smoke from both planned and unplanned fires in wildlands, wildland urban interface, agricultural operations, or adjacent developed areas.

    Smoke from prescribed fires causes the same potential risk to worker health as smoke from unplanned wildfires. However, these fires are highly managed in order to minimize the impact from the smoke. Prescribed fires are planned in advance and notice is given to people in areas that may be impacted, which allows for additional time to prepare. Employers in areas that may be impacted by smoke from prescribed fires must follow the requirements in the wildfire smoke rules to protect employees from the smoke. For more information, see the Department of Natural Resources’ prescribed fire program.

    Do the wildfire smoke rules apply to firefighters?

    Firefighting, when under the scope of chapter 296-305 WAC, is exempt from the wildfire smoke rules.

    Do the wildfire smoke rules apply to other sources of poor air quality?

    The rules apply to the PM2.5 in wildfire smoke. This includes smoke from planned or unplanned fires in wildlands, wildland urban interface, agricultural operations, or adjacent developed areas. The rules do not apply to smoke produced by wood stoves or to other sources of ambient particulate matter, unless wildfire smoke is also present.

    PM2.5 levels above 20.5 µg/m3 (AQI 69 for PM2.5) during the wildfire smoke season are typically caused by wildfire smoke. PM2.5 exposures above 20.5 µg/m3 when there is no wildfire smoke are not covered by the rules.

    It is important to note that the Air Quality Index (AQI) also reports other air contaminants such as ozone. In situations where there is no wildfire smoke, but the AQI is greater than 69, it is often due to another contaminant covered by the AQI. If employers choose to reference the AQI to comply with these rules, they should make sure the tool they are using is showing the NowCast AQI for PM2.5.

    Identification of harmful exposures

    How is wildfire smoke measured?

    Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of gases, hazardous chemicals, and fine particulates. Fine particulates known as PM2.5 are the primary pollutant of concern in wildfire smoke. PM2.5 is measured as the mass of small particles per volume of air (micrograms per meter cubed, or µg/m³). The current PM2.5 is the best measure of wildfire smoke. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) produces the AQI, an index that translates PM2.5 and several other air pollutants into general public health messages. For more information, please see: AQI Basics.

    Where can I find the current PM2.5 and the NowCast AQI?

    The Washington State Department of Ecology maintains monitoring stations across the state to measure PM2.5. The data can be accessed at the following websites:

    Note: If you are not sure that the AQI value you are using is for PM2.5, you should instead use the current PM2.5 to make sure you are following the requirements of the wildfire smoke rules. 

    How do I comply with L&I’s wildfire smoke rules given the EPA changes to the AQI?

    The EPA updated the Air Quality Index (AQI) on May 6, 2024. L&I’s Wildfire Smoke (WFS) rules are based on PM2.5 concentrations, but reference the corresponding AQI for workers and employers who choose to use the AQI to determine the amount of smoke in the air. While the AQI may represent information on one of many pollutants, L&I’s rules only allow the use of the NowCast AQI for PM2.5 which is made using the most recent 3-12 hours of PM2.5 data.

    What’s not changing:

    • The PM2.5 thresholds are not changing
    • The requirements of the rule are not changing.
    • The PM2.5 values shown on air quality maps are not changing.

    L&I is not changing the levels of smoke and particulate matter in the air that require action. The requirements in the L&I WFS rule are based on the current PM2.5 concentration, with increasing requirements when the PM2.5 concentrations reach specific thresholds set in the rules as shown in Table 1 of this document.

    You can see the full rule on our rules web page.

    What is changing:

    • The EPA updated its Air Quality Index (AQI).
    • L&I will be updating the AQI values referenced in the rule to reflect EPA’s changes.
    • The AQI values shown on air quality maps are changing.

    The recent EPA updates, which went into effect May 6, changed the AQI breakpoints, which is the PM2.5 concentration where the AQI category changes.

    Previously, the AQI index stopped at 500.4 µg/m³ (AQI 500). AQI values above 500 were referred to as “Beyond the AQI”. Under the EPA updates, the AQI index does not stop at 500.

    Since the updated AQI does not stop at AQI 500, there is no longer a “Beyond the AQI” category. This will allow employers and employees who use AQI to continue to use the AQI at higher PM2.5 concentrations, making it easier to comply with the rules and protect workers.

    The PM2.5 levels in L&I WFS rules are not changing, but the AQI values referenced in the rule are out of date. This causes confusion about what action steps are required by the rule. Employers may use the updated AQI levels listed in DD 8.20, the Wildfire Smoke Topic Page, and Table 1 below in lieu of the AQI values listed in the rule.

    If an employer follows the old AQI values referenced in the current rules, they would still be in compliance as they would be providing increased protections at a lower PM2.5 concentration than is required.

    Examples:

    • Before May 6, when PM2.5 was 250.5 µg/m³, the AQI would be 301 and employers would be required to directly distribute N95 respirators to employees for voluntary use.
    • Now, when PM2.5 is 250.5 µg/m³, the AQI will be 351 and employers will be required to directly distribute N95 respirators to employees for voluntary use.
    • Before May 6, when PM2.5 was 500.4 µg/m³, the AQI would be 500 and employers would be required to implement a required use respiratory protection program.
    • Now, when PM2.5 is 500.4 µg/m³, the AQI will be 849 and employers will be required to implement a required use respiratory protection program.

    How close to a regulatory monitor must an employer be to use it to determine the PM2.5 at their location? 

    While there are many regulatory monitors across the state available for reference, some locations are farther away from a regulatory monitor than others. If employers use the closest monitoring site, L&I’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health will accept readings from that monitor for compliance purposes. Employers also have the option of using direct reading PM2.5 sensors to get more localized measurements at a particular worksite. Employers must note their method of determining the PM2.5 in their written Wildfire Smoke Response Plan.

    Hazard Communication

    What is L&I’s guidance for  employees working in remote areas?

    Employers can use multiple methods to ensure employees get the proper protection from wildfire smoke while working in remote areas. The employer may use wildfire smoke forecasts to assist with pre-planning. Employers must have a two-way communication system, such as a satellite phone, regular check-ins, or walkie-talkies if employees are out of cellular phone service areas.

    Employers can also provide employees with direct read PM2.5 sensors that show current conditions at the worksite. Employees must be trained how to use the equipment and interpret the results.

    Additionally, the employer must provide the necessary protective equipment (such as N95s) if employees are anticipated to work in conditions where the PM2.5 could reach 35.5 µg/m³ (AQI 101).

    Are employers expected to maintain records of the air quality?

    Employers that source air quality information from the Washington Department of Ecology, the EPA, or other qualified government agencies are not required to maintain air quality records, though they may choose to do so. When an employer chooses to use its own direct-reading PM2.5 sensor, the employer must keep a record of pertinent air quality data in compliance with chapter 296-802 WAC. Note: Agricultural operations are exempt from WAC 296-802.

    Can wildfire smoke be harmful even when it can’t be seen or smelled?

    Yes. Do not depend on your eyes or nose to gauge the harm in wildfire smoke. Use reliable data instead.

    The wildfire smoke rules are designed to limit the harm from wildfire smoke and it is important for workers to consider taking action to reduce exposure to smoke whenever the rules’ protections are in effect, even if they aren’t experiencing symptoms. Symptoms are an additional indicator to reduce exposure to smoke and reduce work intensity.

    Exposure Symptom Response

    Why do the wildfire smoke rules have requirements for employers to monitor their workers and take actions based on smoke exposures?

    There will be times workers develop symptoms while on the job that may potentially be related to wildfire smoke exposure. When workers are exposed to wildfire smoke, the development of symptoms indicates inadequate exposure control. Exposure symptom response requirements ensure workers with symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure can recover and that employers have made the necessary preparations to prevent further harm.

    What must employers do if workers develop symptoms that may potentially be related to wildfire smoke exposure?

    Particulate matter from wildfire smoke exposure can harm workers even when they are not experiencing symptoms. But when workers experience symptoms from wildfire smoke exposure, harm is occurring, and is an indication of inadequate exposure control of this hazard.

    Employers must always take action when they see workers displaying symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure or when a worker tells them they are experiencing symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure.

    Regardless of the current PM2.5 concentration, employers must both make provisions in advance for prompt medical attention of symptomatic workers and monitor them to determine whether medical attention is necessary. Employers must also take steps to reduce or eliminate continued exposure to wildfire smoke as appropriate to:

    • Employee symptoms;
    • Intensity of exposure; and
    • Exposure controls in place, including respiratory protections that are in place.

    In addition, where the current PM2.5 is 250.5 µg/m3 or more, employers must ensure workers experiencing symptoms requiring immediate medical attention be moved to a location where sufficient clean air is ensured.

    What rights do workers have under the wildfire smoke rules when they develop symptoms?

    Even healthy workers can be harmed by wildfire smoke. Workers who display any symptoms that may potentially be related to wildfire smoke exposure must be permitted to seek medical attention or follow medical advice they have been given. This is true regardless of the severity or number of symptoms.

    Do workers need to prove that symptoms are work-related in order to seek medical attention or follow medical advice they have been given?

    No. Workers have the right to seek medical attention or follow medical advice they have been given when they display any symptoms that may potentially be related to wildfire smoke exposure.

    What protections from retaliation are in place for workers who seek medical attention or follow medical advice they have been given because they are experiencing symptoms potentially related to wildfire smoke exposure?

    Employers must not retaliate against workers who seek medical attention or follow medical advice they have been given when they display any symptoms that may potentially be related to wildfire smoke exposure.

    What are examples of symptoms requiring immediate medical attention?

    Symptoms requiring immediate medical attention include, but are not limited to:

    • Wheezing, difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath;
    • Asthma attacks;
    • Chest pain or symptoms concerning for heart attack;
    • Nausea or vomiting;
    • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body;
    • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding speech;
    • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes;
    • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination, or
    • Sudden severe headache with no known cause.

    What should workers do if they believe they’re ill due to exposure to wildfire smoke in the workplace?

    Workers who believe their health has been impacted by exposure to wildfire smoke in the workplace should have a medical evaluation. Workers should go to a health care provider of their choice, or if necessary, to an emergency room for a medical evaluation. They should explain they were exposed to wildfire smoke on the job. The health care provider may help them file a workers’ compensation claim.

    For more information, please see What to do if a worker becomes ill due to wildfire smoke exposure (F101-191-000).

    Exposure Controls

    What are acceptable exposure controls for wildfire smoke?

    Some examples of exposure controls include:

    • Providing enclosed buildings, structures, or vehicles where the air is adequately filtered.
    • Providing portable HEPA filters in enclosed areas.
    • Relocating work to a location with a lower ambient air concentration of PM2.5.
    • Changing work schedules to a time with a lower ambient air concentration of PM2.5.
    • Avoiding or reducing work that creates additional exposures to dust, fumes, or smoke.
    • Reducing work intensity.
    • Providing additional rest periods.

    Employers are permitted to choose alternate exposure controls outside of those listed above that are best suited to their particular needs.

    Will the wildfire smoke rules require buildings to have a specific type of filtration?

    The rules mostly apply to workplaces where employees are exposed to the outdoors. There is no requirement for filtration for buildings in the rules. As long as doors and windows are kept closed, indoor worksites are outside of the scope of the rules. Wildfire smoke can still enter the building and impact workers even in areas not covered under the scope of the rules. Information on improving indoor air quality can be found in EPA’s Wildfire Smoke Indoor Air Factsheet.

    How will L&I determine feasibility with regard to implementing exposure controls?

    Feasibility is dependent on a particular workplace. L&I can provide guidance to a particular employer, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach to feasibility. L&I has consultants who can assist with making feasibility determinations what can be done at a particular worksite.

    Respiratory Protection

    When must employers provide respirators to workers?

    Employers must provide respirators to workers covered by the rules when the smoke levels reach a PM2.5 concentration of 35.5 µg/m3 (AQI 101) or more. At a PM2.5 of 250.5 µg/m3 (AQI 351) or higher, respiratory protection must be distributed to individual workers, but their use is voluntary at this level.

    While smoke levels beyond 500.4 µg/m3 of PM2.5 (AQI 849) are rare, when PM2.5 is at this concentration or higher, employers must provide respirators and require workers to use them. They must also implement a full respiratory protection program. In the event of extremely hazardous conditions where the PM2.5 reaches 555 µg/m³ or above, employers must provide respirators more protective than N95s with an assigned protection factor (APF) of 25 or more and they must require workers to use them.

    What is the difference between a mask and a respirator? Can KN95s be used instead of respirators?

    A respirator is a form of personal protective equipment (PPE) certified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Respirators filter out air contaminants before they reach the lungs. Bandanas, scarves, facemasks, t-shirts worn over the nose and mouth do not provide any protection against wildfire smoke. Facemasks and dust masks not certified by NIOSH do not adequately protect workers from wildfire smoke.

    KN95s, the type of facemasks used widely during the COVID-19 pandemic, look similar to N95s, but are not NIOSH-certified and do not provide protection from wildfire smoke. An N95 respirator will have information printed on it to indicate it is NIOSH approved.  See How to tell if your N95 Respirator is NIOSH Approved.

    According to the EPA, the air quality is “unhealthy for sensitive groups” at AQI 101. Why is L&I requiring employers provide respirators for everyone at this threshold?

    At 35.5 µg/m3 (AQI 101), the wildfire smoke rules require employers to provide respirators to workers for voluntary use. Workers are not required to wear respirators at this threshold, but are encouraged to take steps to protect themselves if they choose to.

    The EPA’s current hazard messaging states that AQI 101 is “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” The Washington State Department of Health (DOH), the EPA, and L&I consider outdoor workers to be a “sensitive group” given the increased exposure relative to the general population. In addition to outdoor workers, there are workers covered by the wildfire smoke rules who fall under other “sensitive group” characteristics under the EPA model, including those with heart or lung conditions (such as asthma), older adults, teenagers, and people who are pregnant. 

    Do workers need to shave for a respirator to be effective?

    Tight-fitting respirators such as N95s need a tight seal to the face to provide adequate protection from wildfire smoke. Anything interfering with the seal between the respirator and skin, such as facial hair, will allow smoke to bypass the filter and enter the lungs.

    If employers continue operations when the concentration of PM2.5 is 500.4 µg/m³ (AQI 849) or higher, respirator use is required with a full respiratory protection program. When respirators are required, employees wearing tight-fitting respirators such as N95s will be required to be clean-shaven.

    When respirator use is voluntary, it is highly recommended that workers be clean-shaven to reduce exposure as much as possible, but shaving is not required.

    What training do employees need when they voluntarily wear a respirator to protect themselves from wildfire smoke?

    When employees voluntarily wear N95 respirators (or filtering facepiece respirators) in accordance with the wildfire smoke rules, the required wildfire smoke employee training provides sufficient respirator training. When other types of respirators are worn voluntarily, additional respirator training is required under Safety Standards for Respirators (Chapter 296-842 WAC).

    “Table 2 – Advisory Information for Employees Who Voluntarily Use Respirators,” which is part of the respirator standard, does not need to be provided to employees voluntarily wearing N95 respirators (or other filtering facepiece respirators) who are:

    • Wearing the N95 respirator due to wildfire smoke exposure;
    • Are covered under the wildfire smoke rule;
    • Are not exposed to any other airborne hazard; and
    • Have received comprehensive, required wildfire smoke employee training.

    Employers whose workers are voluntarily wearing respirators outside of the scope of the wildfire smoke rule must follow all of the requirements of the respirator standard (Chapter 296-842 WAC).


    For topic-specific information, see also:


    More help from L&I