When out­door air is harm­ful, em­ploy­ers must pro­tect their work­ers

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY ELIANA OROPEZA, COURT­NEY GLOVER, LEEANN TIMBROOK, MONICA SABALA, RE­BECCA MORGENSTER­N AND STACY DEROSA The au­thors are grad­u­ate stu­dents at San Jose State. Eliana Oropeza is from Fresno and is earn­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree in public health.

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.

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