As wildfires continue, employers are expected to protect workers from wildfire smoke. Employers can choose to voluntarily follow safety measures in the expired Wildfire Smoke emergency rule to fulfill this responsibility.
Wildfire smoke is made up of harmful chemicals and tiny particles suspended in the air. This smoke can make anyone sick, even healthy individuals.
Wildfire smoke can cause mild symptoms like:
- Stinging eyes
- Runny nose
- Scratchy throat
The smoke can also cause serious and sometimes fatal health effects, including:
- Chest pain and heart failure
- Asthma attacks
- Trouble breathing
- Reduced lung function
Find information on protect workers from wildfire smoke below.
Smoke levels can change frequently. The amount of tiny smoke particles in the air directly affects the overall air quality in an area and can increase to harmful levels for unprotected employees working outdoors. This is why keeping track of air quality and planning for bad smoky days are important best practice steps to keep your outdoor employees from getting sick from smoke during wildfire season.
There are two common ways to report air quality :
- As PM2.5 - short for “particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller”.
- As the AQI - short for “air quality index”. The AQI takes into account the PM2.5 - plus four other major pollutants.
Here are some common online tools you can use to check the current air quality:
- Fire and Smoke Map from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Air Quality Map from the Washington State Department of Ecology, and
- US Forest Service tools
As a best practice, a written safety plan will help you prepare for days when the air quality becomes harmful to health. As part of your plan, consider the following and use your answers as the basis for your safety plan:
Is it possible to limit outdoor work?
- Can you make arrangements to change work schedules or move work indoors?
- Is there any way to reduce the physical intensity of the work? Or increase rest periods?
- When should N95s or other respirators be used?
- Do workers and crew leads know the symptoms and health effects associated with breathing too much wildfire smoke? What should they do if they experience symptoms or health effects? When should they seek immediate medical treatment?
When outdoor work cannot be avoided, the best way to protect worker’s lungs from wildfire smoke is to use properly-fitted NIOSH-approved N95s, P100s, or elastomeric half-facepiece respirators with filter cartridges.
Bandanas, scarves, facemasks, KN95’s, or t-shirts worn over the nose and mouth will not provide effective protection against wildfire smoke.
L&I is currently involved in rulemaking for a permanent wildfire smoke rule. Increasingly intense wildfires and wildfire smoke continue to create health risks to all outdoor workers. L&I’s emergency rule, Wildfire Smoke Chapter 296-62-085 WAC, expired on September 29, 2022.
Visit L&I’s Wildfire Smoke Workplace Safety & Health Rulemaking webpage to stay informed and participate in this rulemaking process.
Other L&I Rules
- Core Rules (Chapter 296-800 WAC)
- Respirators (Chapter 296-842 WAC)
Cell Phone Apps
- Washington Ecology's “Air Quality WA”.
- EPA's "AirNow".
General Wildfire Smoke Safety
- Smoke from Fires from the Washington Department of Health contains many resources on wildfire smoke.
- Smoke-Ready Toolbox for Wildfires from the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Wildfire Smoke Safety website has additional smoke resources from the Pacific Northwest Agriculture Safety & Health (PNASH) Center at UW.
Indoor Air Quality
- Improving Ventilation and Indoor Air Quality during Wildfire Smoke Events (Dept. of Health).