Cal/OSHA Issues Emergency Rules to Protect Workers from Wildfire Smoke

wildfire

Cal/OSHA has issued emergency regulations that require employers of outdoor workers to take protective measures, including providing respiratory equipment, when air quality is significantly affected by wildfires.

Smoke from wildfires can travel hundreds of miles and while an area may not be in danger of the fire, the smoke can be thick and dangerous, reaching unhealthy levels. The danger is worst for people with underlying health conditions like heart disease, asthma or other respiratory issues.

Cal/OSHA decided to start work on the new regulations after worker groups filed a petition asking the agency to step in and protect people working outside from unsafe air quality caused by wildfires.

Below is all you need to know about the new emergency regulations that are slated to take effect in early August 2019.

What to expect

The draft of the regulations, which were approved at a July 18 Cal/OSH board hearing, would require that employers take action when the Air Quality Index (AQI) for particulate matter 2.5 is more than 150, which is considered in the “unhealthy” range.

The protections would also be triggered when a government agency issues a wildfire smoke advisory or there when there is a “realistic possibility” that workers would be exposed to wildfire smoke.

All California employers with “a worker who is outdoors for more than an hour cumulative over the course of their shift” would be required to comply with these regulations:

Checking the Air Quality Index – Employers of outdoor works must check the AQI at the worksite to see if it is above 150, which would require the employer to take protective measures for the workers. AQI can be checked in the following ways:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow website.
  • The California Air Resources Board website.
  • Your local air pollution control district website.
  • Checking PM2.5 levels at the worksite and converting them to the corresponding AQI (Appendix A of the regulations explain how).

Communications – Employers must establish and implement a system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards to affected employees, including allowing employees to inform the employer of such hazards at the worksite. Communications should include:

  • The current AQI for PM2.5.
  • Protective measures available to workers to reduce their wildfire smoke exposure.
  • Encouraging employees to inform the employer of worsening job site air quality.
  • Reporting symptoms such as asthma attacks, difficulty breathing and chest pain.

Training – Employers with outside works should train them in:

  • The health effects of wildfire smoke.
  • The right to obtain medical treatment without fear of reprisal.
  • How employees can obtain the current AQI for PM2.5.
  • The requirements in Cal/OSHA’s regulation about wildfire smoke.
  • The employer’s communication system.
  • The employer’s methods to protect employees from wildfire smoke.
  • The importance, limitations and benefits of using a respirator when exposed to wildfire smoke.
  • How to properly put on, use and maintain the respirators provided by the employer.

Suitable protection – There are a number of methods employers can implement to protect workers when the AQI for PM2.5 exceeds 150.

  • Engineering controls, such as providing enclosed structures or vehicles with effective filtration where employees can continue working, or
  • Administrative controls like:
  • Relocating workers,
  • Changing work schedules,
  • Reducing work intensity, or
  • Giving them additional rest periods, or
  • Respiratory protective equipment. The employer must provide respirators to all employees for voluntary use, and encourage them to use them.

Respirators shall be NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)-approved devices that effectively protect the wearers from inhalation of PM2.5, such as N95 filtering face-piece respirators. Respirators shall be cleaned, stored, maintained and replaced so that they do not present a health hazard to users.

Where the current AQI for PM2.5 is 501 or greater, respirator use is required.

Why Workers’ Comp Claims Spike in the Summer

Construction Site

Workplace injury rates rise during the summer months. When summer rolls around, companies in many sectors, including agriculture and construction, significantly increase production.

Increased road construction raises risks for workers and drivers. Many of the newly hired workers are young and inexperienced, creating a high potential for workplace injuries.

Toiling in the sun is also a leading cause of weather-related injuries, including heatstroke, heat cramps and heat exhaustion. Heat illnesses occur when the body overheats to the point it cannot cool off, even with profuse sweating.

Young workers

Too often, young workers enter the workforce with little or no on-the-job safety training, heightening safety risks.

Recently, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries released a report showing that teens are twice as likely to be hurt on the job as adults.

In Washington state, a total of 547 youths aged 17 and under were injured in the workplace in 2014, up nearly 14.7% over the previous year. Of the total, 173 were in the food and hospitality industries. The next largest total, 80, was reported in both the retail trades and agriculture.

Falls to the floor increased 77%, to 55 cases, as the chief cause of injury.

Young workers, aged 14 to 24, have more accidents because they lack the knowledge, training, and experience to prevent them. Some common issues employers encounter with young workers are:

  • They do not understand what can go wrong.
  • They do not always follow the rules.
  • They fail to use personal protective equipment (PPE) or use it incorrectly.
  • They horse around on the equipment.
  • They do not ask questions.
  • They think they are infallible.

It’s also important for supervisors to recognize the physical, cognitive and emotional developmental differences between young and adult workers. It takes extra effort to train and supervise seasonal employees on working safely.

Here are some training suggestions:

  • Repeatedly demonstrate job procedures and safety precautions. Don’t overlook the basics, such as starting and stopping equipment.
  • The step-by-step instructions for any task must include the task’s hazards and how to avoid them. Take the time to clearly explain the risks of not following the proper steps. Use examples.
  • Explain when and how to use PPE, as well as where to get it, how to inspect it, and how to remove and store it properly.
  • Train one-to-one with young workers and observe them performing tasks.
  • Encourage them to report problems and to ask questions.
  • Assign specific clean-up tasks and emphasize the importance of a clean, clutter-free worksite.
  • Control the hours worked. Many popular summer jobs, such as construction workers, landscapers, and jobs in hospitality and food industries, require long hours of work in the heat that can lead to fatigue, inattention, and stress, increasing the likelihood of injury.
  • Provide a mentor.
  • Demonstrate that safety is a priority at your facility. Words aren’t enough. New workers also need to see actions that reinforce the message: clean worksite, properly labeled hazardous substances and readily accessible safety data sheets, workers wearing required PPE and who are concerned about workplace safety and show it, and so on.

Heat illness dangers

While there are many excellent resources on dealing with heat, it’s important for employers to recognize that there are individual differences among workers and those who are struggling may be hesitant to complain.

The American Society of Safety Engineers calls heat the “unseen danger” at construction sites because the symptoms of heat illness can be subtle and misinterpreted as mere annoyances rather than signs of a serious health issue.

Workers new to outdoor jobs are particularly vulnerable. Implementing an acclimatization program, providing adequate water and frequent breaks are all critical, but the best way for employers to prevent heat illnesses is to consistently interact with workers to gauge how they’re feeling and provide current information on weather conditions.

Also, using apps, such as OSHA’s Heat Safety Tool, is a good way for workers to monitor their risk levels.

Is Your Business Prepared for Recreational Marijuana Use?

cannabis marijuana work

Companies in states that have legalized marijuana are wrestling with how to deal with employees that use, particularly if they did so the night before and are still feeling the effects the following day.

A new survey found that one-third of business owners are not prepared for managing the effects of legalized marijuana in the workplace. The biggest issue facing employers is ensuring that workers don’t come to work under the influence, or that they don’t sneak off for a few puffs during their lunch breaks.

The problem is that it’s difficult to see if someone is under the influence if they have smoked a little bit and are slightly “buzzed.” On-the-spot drug tests won’t work because marijuana can stay in the system for 30 days or more, making it impossible to know when they used it last.

With no clear guidance, some employers have responded by relaxing their drug policies to allow for employee consumption outside the confines of the workplace, while others have kept the zero-tolerance rules in place to thwart employees who may try to use cannabis during the workday.

Employer concerns

The biggest concern for employers is workplace safety, as well as the safety of customers and even the general public if a driving employee is using while on the clock.

When someone is under the influence their judgment is impaired and their reaction time is slowed. That could lead to workplace accidents and worker injuries. That, in turn, can result in fines by OSHA as well as higher workers’ comp rates, in addition to lost time by key employees.

If an impaired worker is operating equipment in a retail establishment and injures a customer or a vendor, you could be facing a substantial liability lawsuit.

If you have an impaired driver who causes an accident and injures or kills a third party, and/or destroys a third party’s property, you could also face a liability suit.

What you can do

First, you have to decide your business’s level of tolerance for employee marijuana use. Obviously, for workers using heavy machinery, or in other safety-sensitive jobs like drivers, it would be wise to have a no-tolerance policy in place that includes drug testing.

Whether pot is legal in your state or not, you are still free to ban marijuana use on the job, just as you can alcohol – and you can fire someone for using it on the job.

It’s important that whatever policy you put in place, it is communicated to employees through a staff meeting as well as in your employee handbook. You should inform them of the consequences of violating that policy.

For the sake of workplace safety and your overall liability exposure, you should consider restricting marijuana use to the extent permitted by law.

At the very least, you should prohibit marijuana use in the workplace, as well as marijuana impairment during work hours or in the workplace.

Your approach will depend on which state your business is located in. For example, California provides a constitutional right to privacy which restricts employers from monitoring off-duty conduct.

That said, pre-employment drug-testing is generally permitted, as long as it is conducted in a fair and consistent manner and administered to all applicants for a position within a specific job class.

After employees start working, they have a higher expectation of privacy. That means you should restrict any drug-testing to suspicion-based inquiries, like someone who appears under the influence. Random testing is highly restricted in California and should be reserved for certain safety-sensitive positions.

Remember though: There are exceptions for medical marijuana use. Most workers must be allowed to take medical pot, just as they would any other legal drug.