When outdoor air is harmful, employers must protect their workers
Californians are no strangers to smoky skies, as wildfires are increasing in both frequency and intensity. Wildfires result in dangerous smoke that impacts the air quality and unfortunately it knows no boundaries. Smoke can spread among counties, states, and even countries, as smoke from the 2018 fires spread into Canada.
Wildfire smoke contains air pollutants that can cause health issues, especially breathing problems and asthma. Longterm effects of breathing wildfire smoke, like cancer, are also a concern. Certain individuals are at higher risk, including those with breathing conditions, children, and the elderly. While on the job, outside workers also need to be protected. Far too many outdoor workers are found working unprotected during wildfire events.
During the 2018 California wildfires, local public health departments were flooded with phone calls from employers wanting to know if it was safe for their employees to be working outside. Largely, employers wanted to know what they should do if it was not safe, demonstrating that many employers were unaware of where to find trustworthy information and how to interpret the information. What about the employers who were not concerned enough to reach out or were unaware they were putting their employees’ health at risk?
Employers are mandated by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s (Cal/OSHA) Control of Harmful Exposure standard to protect their employees. They are responsible for monitoring local air quality to determine safety. If the air quality is found to be unhealthy, employers must implement modifications to the work environment to reduce exposure and/or provide appropriate respiratory personal protective equipment, like N95 respirators. Various factors must be considered, including how long the employee needs to be outside, how much they must physically exert themselves, any pre-existing health conditions, as well as if an employee is experiencing symptoms due to smoke exposure. Sounds fairly simple, right? Well, perhaps not. Do employers know about the Control of Harmful Exposure standard? Do they understand their responsibilities and what they need to do? Do they know where to access this information? Do they even know they are supposed to?
It is well known that wildfires pose health hazards. We need to ensure employers are aware of their responsibility to protect their workers and that they are following through. Employers are legally obligated to maintain a safe workplace environment, which includes protection from wildfire smoke. While this may seem obvious, it is not common knowledge and unfortunately workers often go unprotected during wildfire events. When outdoor air quality for airborne particles is rated “unhealthy” or worse, exposure is considered harmful and employers are required to take action. Smoke and airborne particles can spread thousands of miles from a fire’s location.
The California Department of Industrial Relations provides information on its website for protecting workers, including from wildfire smoke. There are step-by-step guidelines, procedures, a Frequently Asked Questions section, and information on advisory meetings and committee meetings. Distribution locations for N95 masks during wildfire events are listed and proper usage tips are posted. The information is all there. So why are we seeing unprotected workers throughout California and what can be done to ensure workplace safety?
A disconnect exists between what must be done, as evidence-based information clearly points out, and what is actually being done. A clear way to address this is via policy changes and employer requirements related to ensuring adherence to workplace safety guidelines. There has been increased discussion related to wildfires since the catastrophic 2018 wildfire season. While Cal/ OSHA has a consultation services branch and some of their services include wildfire education, all services offered are “free and voluntary.” Why are services aimed at protecting the health and wellness of employees voluntary, especially when it is apparent there is widespread non-compliance? To increase workplace safety, all employers should be mandated to complete training reviewing their obligation to protect workers from harmful effects of wildfires, and they need to be held accountable for any negligence.
All aspects of health and safety should be a workplace priority. How can we better support change and keep workers safe? California Assembly Bill 1124 is aimed at protecting outdoor workers during wildfire events. Community members can voice their opinion to the Legislature. By adding an addendum to Assembly Bill 1124 stating that employers must undergo mandated wildfire employee protection training and be held accountable if negligence is found, we can help ensure outdoor workers’ safety.