Cal/OSHA Requires Employers to Protect Workers from Wildfire Smoke

As wildfires continue raging throughout California, Cal/OSHA has issued a reminder to employers that they are required to protect their outdoor workers from smoke if the air quality index exceeds 151.

Cal/OSHA has extended an emergency regulation it put in place in August 2019 through January 2021 as it works on a permanent regulation on wildfire smoke protection for outdoor workers in California.

For the safety of your workers and to comply with the regulation, it’s important that you follow the regulations and know when you will need to take action to protect them from outdoor smoke.

The regulation applies when the Air Quality Index (AQI) for airborne Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5 microns (PM2.5) or smaller is 151 or greater in an area where employees are working outdoors. Here are the details of the regulation: 

Identification – When wildfire smoke affects a worksite, employers must monitor the air quality index (AQI) for PM2.5. Employers can monitor the AQI using the following websites:

Communication – Employers must implement a system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards in a form readily understandable by all affected employees, including provisions designed to encourage employees to inform the employer of wildfire smoke hazards without fear of reprisal.

Training and instruction – Employers with outdoor workers need to provide training that covers at least:

  • The health effects of wildfire smoke.
  • The right to obtain medical treatment without fear of reprisal.
  • How employees can obtain the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5.
  • Possible actions they must take if the AQI exceeds 150 PM 2.5

Options for protecting workers – The regulation provides three ways employers can protect their workers:

  1. Modifications – If possible, employers should implement modifications to the workplace, to reduce exposure. Examples include providing enclosed structures or vehicles for employees to work in, where the air is filtered.
  2. Changes to procedures and schedules – Another option is to change work procedures or schedules. Examples include changing the location where employees work or reducing the amount of time they work outdoors or exposed to unfiltered outdoor air.
  3. Respiratory protection – Employers also have the option to provide proper respiratory protection equipment, such as disposable respirators, for voluntary use without fit-testing.

To filter out fine particles, respirators must be labeled N-95, N-99, N-100, R-95, P-95, P-99, or P-100, and must be labeled as approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

If the AQI is above 300, fit-testing and a medical examination prior to use would be mandatory.

The takeaway

If you do have outside workers who are confronted with working in smoky conditions, you should start stockpiling two-week supply of N95 masks for all of your workers if you are unable to implement other controls to reduce their exposure.

Cal/OSHA is in the rule making process to make the emergency regulations permanent and has sent out public comment notices on the proposed regulation. We will continue monitoring the agency’s progress on the rules and update you when they have been completed.

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