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Toolbox Talk: Wildfire Smoke Best Practices

By August 3, 2021 August 9th, 2021 No Comments

With the record number of wildfires and poor air quality from wildfire smoke this year, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has recently filed an emergency rule to provide increased protection for employees exposed to the hazards associated with wildfire smoke. You can read their best practices recommendations here.

L&I recognizes the hazard of wildfire smoke exposure is increasing every year and potentially presents serious health risks to all workers, especially those working outside in industries such as construction and agriculture. L&I has received a petition for rulemaking regarding wildfire smoke protections after the historic 2020 wildfires, which created unprecedented smoke conditions in the state. The state of California has adopted similar temporary and permanent workplace safety and health rules regarding wildfire smoke.

A major component of wildfire smoke is particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5); inhalation of PM2.5 causes cardiovascular health effects and increases the risk of death. PM2.5 is elevated during wildfire smoke events, causing a risk to workers.

This emergency rule applies to workplaces where the employer should reasonably anticipate that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke.

Exempt workplaces and operations are:

  • Enclosed buildings or structures in which the employer ensures that windows, doors, bays, and other exterior openings are kept closed, except when it is necessary to open doors to enter and exit
  • Enclosed vehicles in which the air is filtered by a cabin air filter and the employer ensures that windows, doors, and other openings are kept closed except when it is necessary to open doors to enter or exit
  • Employees exposed to a concentration of PM2.5 of 20.5µg/m3 (equivalent Washington Air Quality Advisory Level or “WAQA” of 101, equivalent Air Quality Index or “AQI” of 69) or more for a total of one hour or less during a shift
  • Firefighters engaged in wildland firefighting

This emergency rule includes:

  • Requirements for employers to determine PM2.5 levels at their worksites by checking one of the listed web-based sources or directly measuring PM2.5 at their worksite
  • Requirements for hazard communication to notify employees when the PM2.5 levels reach 55.5 µg/m3 (WAQA 173, AQI 151)
  • Requirements for training both supervisors and line staff who may be exposed to PM2.5 levels of 20.5µg/m3 (WAQA 101, AQI 69) or above on the hazards of wildfire smoke and the procedures regarding the employer’s plan for ensuring workers are protected from wildfire smoke
  •  Requirements for monitoring and allowing for medical care for employees who display symptoms of illness related to wildfire smoke
  • Requirements for implementation of engineering and administrative controls whenever PM2.5 reaches 55.5 µg/m3 (WAQA 173, AQI 151) and such controls are feasible
  • Requirements for supplying respiratory protection for employees use on a voluntary basis whenever PM2.5 reaches 55.5 µg/m3 (WAQA 173, AQI 151)

The emergency rule ensures that workers in Washington are provided protections from the hazard of wildfire smoke inhalation while L&I proceeds with the implementation of the wildfire smoke permanent rulemaking.

As stated in official documents, L&I filed a Preproposal Statement of Inquiry (CR-101) on October 20, 2021, under WSR 20-21-093, regarding permanent rulemaking for hazards relating to wildfire smoke events. Some additions made as part of the emergency rule will be considered for permanent rulemaking. The department will be seeking comments from affected stakeholders during the permanent rulemaking process. See document here.

Remember, safety is built one step at a time!

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