California adopts emergency rule to protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke

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Firefighters are exempt

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N95 masks
Examples of N95 masks

On July 18 California’s Department of Industrial Relations’ (DIR) Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board adopted an emergency regulation to protect workers from hazards associated with wildfire smoke. The regulation is expected to go into effect in early August.

The emergency regulation will be effective for one year and applies to workplaces where the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for airborne particulate matter (PM) is 151 or greater, and where employers should reasonably anticipate that employees could be exposed to wildfire smoke.

Under the new regulation, employers must take the following steps to protect workers who may be exposed to wildfire smoke:

  • Identify harmful exposure to airborne particulate matter from wildfire smoke before each shift and periodically thereafter by checking the AQI for PM 2.5 in regions where workers are located.
  • Reduce harmful exposure to wildfire smoke if feasible, for example, by relocating work to an enclosed building with filtered air or to an outdoor location where the AQI for PM 2.5 is 150 or lower.
  • If employers cannot reduce workers’ harmful exposure to wildfire smoke so that the AQI for PM 2.5 is 150 or lower, they must provide respirators such as N95 masks to all employees for voluntary use, training on the new regulation, information about the health effects of wildfire smoke, and the safe use and maintenance of respirators.

This new regulation exempts employees exposed to a current AQI for PM2.5 of 151 or greater for an hour or less during a shift, and firefighters engaged in wildland firefighting.

This emergency rule making process began last December, after the Standards Board received a petition to protect workers from wildfire smoke before this year’s wildfire season. The Standards Board has requested that Cal/OSHA conduct a follow-up comprehensive review of the regulation with an advisory committee using the regular rule making process in order to adopt permanent regulations. The emergency regulation will remain in effect during that process. Meeting details and documents will be posted on Cal/OSHA’s website.

Air Quality Index
Air Quality Index

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.