Important information for workers in areas affected by wildfires

We’ve been hearing reports that many are being forced to work outdoors—in areas directly affected by the fires—with no respirators or masks of any kind. Given the extremely harmful air quality caused by these catastrophic fires, such activity is completely unacceptable and likely a direct violation of an employer’s legal responsibility to protect workers from known hazards. In addition, given the unprecedented number of structures burned, the chemical makeup of this air is potentially even more harmful than that usually seen in wildfire-afflicted regions.

What can you do? The first and most important layer of protection is to not work outside in such conditions, if possible. If you must work outside, limit the amount of time doing so, and a proper respirator is essential when air quality is so compromised. Employers are required by law to provide a respirator that meets the safety requirements outlined in CCR Title 8, Section 5144.

An N95 or P95 mask, properly worn, provides significant—though not total—protection against the harmful health effects of working near wildfire smoke. Cheap paper masks and wet handkerchiefs provide relief against dry air and large particles but are useless against the very small and extremely harmful particles of wildfire smoke. Please use an N95 or P95 mask if you have one. Also, such a mask must form a very tight seal around the nose and mouth to be effective, so make sure to carefully read any provided instructions before beginning work.

However, these N95/P95masks do not completely block all of the toxic particulate matter, and they are also not suitable for work in confined spaces. Many workers may still suffer significant respiratory and cardiovascular problems as a result of exposure while wearing them. Vulnerable populations—pregnant women, the elderly, those with existing respiratory illnesses, etc.—should avoid exposure to this harmful air whenever possible. Everyone else, minimize your exposure, and always wear a mask that will block at least most of the dangerous particles in the air.

The bad news is that these masks are now pretty tough to find in most fire-afflicted areas, but we hope to have more information soon on when and where they’ll be available.

In the meantime, know that workers in California have the right to refuse dangerous work. If you believe the air is bad enough to present a real and apparent hazard, and your employer offers no significant protection against the hazard, such as an N95/P95 mask, you have the right to tell your employer that you won’t work. Union members who are considering refusing to work should contact their union representatives or shop steward, and union representatives or unrepresented workers should also file a complaint with Cal/OSHA, stressing that the situation is a serious and immediate danger. Retaliating against workers for exercising their legal rights under California law is illegal—report any and all retaliation and reprisals taken by employers.

Please contact us with any questions, and below are some links to further information:

  • US EPA—Details on how harmful the air is in your area (Note: this page has been receiving far more traffic than usual and may be slow or temporarily unavailable)
  • Bay Area Air Quality Information—Maintained by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District
  • Federal OSHA—Information on various hazards associated with working near or in response to wildfires
  • CDC—Summary of how to stay safe during wildfire response
  • A very thorough document by various federal agencies that details the harmful health effects of wildfire smoke and how to protect yourself
  • Cal/OSHA Issues Advisory for Worker Safety in Wildfire Regions (10/13/17)