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July 2022: Cal/OSHA Reminds Employers to Protect Workers from Unhealthy Air Due to Wildfire Smoke

21 Jul


Update Applicable to:
All employers with workers in outdoor worksites in the state of California

What happened?
Due to the harmful air quality caused by wildfires in California, Cal/OSHA is reminding employers that California’s protection from wildfire smoke standard requires them to take steps to protect their workers from unhealthy air from wildfire smoke. 

What are the details?
To help employers prepare before a wildfire event occurs, Cal/OSHA has created training videos on wildfire smoke protection and using N95 respirators.

When wildfire smoke might affect a worksite, employers must monitor the air quality index for PM2.5 before and throughout the work shift. It is easy to track the air quality index using websites like the U.S. EPA’s AirNow or local air quality management district websites. Employers can also use their instruments to measure PM2.5 at a worksite under Cal/OSHA’s requirements.

If the air is unhealthy due to wildfire smoke, employers must provide proper respiratory protection, like N95 respirators, for voluntary use if work cannot be moved to a location where the air is not harmful. If employers cannot move operations to areas where the air is adequately filtered and they do not have access to respiratory protection, they may need to halt operations until the outdoor air quality improves. This includes outdoor worksites and indoor locations where the air is not filtered, or doors are kept open such as warehouses, packing, manufacturing, distribution facilities, and more.  

Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases, and fine particles that can harm health. The greatest hazard comes from breathing fine particles in the air (PM2.5), which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma or other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

If the Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5 is 151 or greater, employers must take these steps to protect employees:

  • Communication: Inform employees of the AQI for PM2.5 and the protective measures available.
  • Training and Instruction: Provide effective training and instruction to all employees on the information in section 5141.1 Appendix B.
  • Modifications: Implement modifications to the workplace, if feasible, to reduce exposure. Examples include providing enclosed structures or vehicles for employees to work in, where the air is filtered.
  • Changes: Implement practicable changes to work procedures or schedules. Examples include changing the location of employees, reducing the time they work outdoors, or being exposed to unfiltered outdoor air.
  • Respiratory protection – Provide proper respiratory protection equipment for voluntary use, such as disposable respirators.
    • 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 labeled as approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

If the AQI for PM2.5 exceeds 500 due to wildfire smoke, respirator use is required. Employers must ensure employees use respirators and implement a respiratory protection program as required in California’s respiratory standard. For information or help on developing a respiratory protection program, see Cal/OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Fact Sheet.

Guidance for employers and workers on wildfire smoke is available on Cal/OSHA’s web page, along with frequently asked questions about N95 masks. Cal/OSHA’s Training Academy offers free resources in English and Spanish.

Cal/OSHA helps protect workers from health and safety hazards on the job in almost every workplace in California. Employers who have questions or want assistance with workplace health and safety programs can call Cal/OSHA’s Consultation Services Branch at 800-963-9424.

Workers who have questions about protection from wildfire smoke can call 833-579-0927 to speak with a Cal/OSHA representative during normal business hours. Complaints about workplace safety and health hazards can be filed with Cal/OSHA district offices.

For more information, please see the links below:

Protection from Wildfire Smoke StandardCal/OSHA’s Requirements

Cal/OSHA Training videos

Cal/OSHA’s Training Academy

U.S. EPA’s AirNowLocal Air Quality Management District Websites

Respiratory StandardRespiratory Protection Fact Sheet

Cal/OSHA’s Consultation Services Branch

California Department of Industrial Relations New Release

What do employers need to do?
Employers should review the resources provided above and make the necessary steps and adjustments to their heat hazard and protection against wild smoke policies to ensure their workers’ safety and stay in compliance with Cal/OSHA.

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This communication is intended solely for the purpose of conveying information. The present post might incorporate hyperlinks directing readers to websites managed by third-party entities. The inclusion of any links within this communication is meant to serve as points of reference and could encompass opinion articles from various law firms, articles from HR associations, official websites, news releases, and documents of government agencies, and other relevant third-party sources. Vensure has no authority over these external websites and bears no responsibility for their content. Furthermore, Vensure does not endorse the materials present on these websites. The contents of this communication should not be interpreted as legal advice or as a legal standpoint concerning specific facts or scenarios. Nor should it be deemed an exhaustive compilation of facts potentially pertinent to federal, state, or local laws. It is strongly advised that employers solicit legal guidance from an employment attorney when undertaking actions in response to any legal updates provided. This is due to the possibility of future alterations occurring in federal, state, and local laws, regulations, as well as the directives and guidelines issued by governing agencies. These changes may transpire at any given time, potentially rendering certain portions of the content within this update void or inaccurate.

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