CA Passes Emergency Rule Protecting Workers Exposed to Smoke from Wildfires

California’s wildfires may continue to worsen, but our ability to protect ourselves from their worst impacts doesn’t have to. That was the goal in mind behind a new regulation, adopted last week, to better protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke-related hazards.

On July 18th, the Cal/OSHA Standards Board (OSHSB) unanimously approved emergency regulatory language to require that employers provide respiratory protection to workers affected by wildfire smoke. The regulation also mandates training, as well as other administrative and engineering controls, all of which will significantly reduce the likelihood that outdoor workers suffer smoke inhalation-related illnesses and fatalities in the future.

Among the biggest challenges associated with such an effort is overcoming the misconception that temporary wildfire smoke exposure is no big deal. Nothing could be further from the truth: even short exposure can cause permanent lung damage or worse, especially to the very young or the elderly. Those with preexisting respiratory conditions, such as asthma, are particularly at risk, as are those with heart disease, as these conditions can be suddenly and severely aggravated by wildfire smoke. Sometimes, this aggravation can even prove fatal.

That’s why the California Labor Federation, along with Worksafe and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, petitioned the OSHSB for a new regulation to more effectively address this problem. Regulations already existed, sort of, but they were by all accounts not ideal and extremely difficult to enforce or comply with, leading to little if any hazard mitigation from employers and universal confusion among workers—hence the need for immediate emergency regulatory reform.

Under this new regulation, respirators—such as N95 masks—must be provided to every affected worker when the Air Quality Index (AQI) exceeds 151, which is the level deemed unhealthy for everyone. Employers must communicate general information regarding wildfire smoke to workers as well as train them on how to wear the respirators, and should the AQI exceed 500, the provided masks are no longer optional and must be worn.

As an emergency regulation, the standard takes effect in early August but will only be in effect for up to a year. During that time, stakeholders will participate in an advisory committee process to work out further details for the permanent rule. Those interested are welcome to attend the first of these meetings, which will take place in Oakland on August 27th. More details are available here.

It should also be noted that from petition to adoption, this standard happened in only seven months. This is an incredibly short timeline, largely unheard of in the worker health and safety world, that reflects both the seriousness of the problem and the dedication of Cal/OSHA and the OSHSB towards solving it. We applaud the work of these agencies in coming together to so quickly and so effectively take action on behalf of workers.

We also would like to especially thank all of the workers who came out to show support for the new standard. Many workers took days off to come to the OSHSB hearings and testify as to why the regulation was so important, and it goes without saying that such activism is why this victory occurred. Great work to all, and we look forward to finalizing the permanent regulation in the coming months.