Protecting Workers from the Harmful Effects of Wildfire Smoke

Source: Aleksey Sagitov/123RF

Lung-damaging ozone pollution in Los Angeles reached its highest levels in a generation and set records in other parts of Southern California during the blistering Labor Day weekend heatwave, according to air quality readings.

As of today, Friday, Sept 11, more than 3-million acres have burned across the state, along with huge swaths of Oregon and Washington.

15 people have been killed and 500,000 evacuated a western fires burn out of control.

Ozone pollution spiked to 185 parts per billion in downtown Los Angeles at midday Sunday, according to data gathered by the Diamond Bar-based South Coast Air Quality Management District. It was the highest hourly reading in Southern California since 2003 and the highest in downtown L.A. in 26 years, the Los Angeles Times reported today.

Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases, and fine particles that can harm health.

The greatest hazard comes from breathing fine particles in the air, which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

The most effective way to protect yourself during wildfire emergencies is to stay indoors or limit your time outdoors when there is smoke in the air. This is especially important if you have heart or lung disease and are at higher risk for adverse health effects.

Reducing physical activity and using HEPA-filtered air cleaners indoors are other ways to reduce your smoke exposure.

Consider temporary relocation out of the smoky area if possible. By limiting your exposure one of these ways, you may not need to wear a respirator.

What about the workers who are exposed to the smoke?

Employers must take the following measures to protect workers when the current AQI is 151 or greater:

  • Implement a system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards in a form readily understandable by all affected employees, including provisions designed to encourage employees to inform the employer of wildfire smoke hazards without fear of reprisal.
  • Training employees according to section 5141.1 Appendix B.
  • Implement engineering controls, when feasible, to reduce employee exposure to PM2.5 to less than a current AQI of 151 (or as low as feasible if less than a current AQI of 151 cannot be achieved). Examples include providing enclosed structures or vehicles for employees to work in, where the air is filtered.
  • Whenever engineering controls are not feasible or do not reduce employee exposures to PM2.5 to less than a current AQI of 151, implement changes to work procedures or schedules when practicable. Examples include changing the location where employees work or their work schedules.
  • Provide proper respiratory protection equipment, such as disposable filtering facepiece respirators (dust masks), other half facepiece respirators, or full facepiece respirators*. See the following webpages and the “Resources” section below for further information on providing respirators to employees.
    • N95 Mask Commonly Asked Questions
    • “Using Disposable Respirators” (in English and Spanish)

      *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 must be labeled as approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Full facepiece respirators provide at least five times as much protection from fine particles as half facepiece respirators such as filtering facepiece respirators (dust masks).
  • The employer must provide respirators for employee use on a voluntary basis when the current AQI for PM2.5 is equal to or greater than 150 but less than 500. The employer must require employees to use respirators when the current AQI for PM2.5 is greater than 500.

LA County Fire Captain David Dantic says they don’t want the public to be caught short if there is a dramatic shift in the fire’s direction.

Commanders here are still hoping they will be able to bring aircraft and helicopters into the areas to hit hotspots and try and lock down the southern edge of the blaze but for the most part, those decisions are subject to the whims of the weather.

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