Cal/OSHA is advising employers that special precautions must be taken to protect workers from hazards from wildfire smoke. Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases and fine particles that can harm health. The greatest hazard comes from breathing fine particles, which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.
Cal/OSHA has posted materials that provide guidance for employers and workers on working safely in conditions with heavy smoke caused by the wildfires. Employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke must consider taking appropriate measures as part of their Injury and Illness Prevention Program under Title 8 section 3203 of the California Code of Regulations and as required under section 5141 (Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees). Those measures include:
- Engineering controls whenever feasible (for example, using a filtered ventilation system in indoor work areas)
- Administrative controls if practicable (for example, limiting the time that employees work outdoors)
- Providing workers with respiratory protective equipment, such as disposable filtering facepieces (dust masks).
- 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 approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Some of California’s County Emergency Operations Centers are distributing N-95 respirators – you can find a list of respirator mask distribution points here. Printable one-page directions for disposable respirator use are available in English and Spanish here.
- Approved respiratory protective equipment is necessary for employees working in outdoor locations designated by local air quality management districts as “Very Unhealthy,” “Unhealthy” or “Hazardous.”
- Disposable respirators only filter out particles. They do not protect workers against gases and vapors, and they do not provide protection in areas where gasoline, oil, pesticides and other chemicals have been spilled.
- Disposable respirators do not provide oxygen, and must not be used in any potentially oxygen-deficient environment such as a crawl space, manhole or vault.
- It takes more effort to breathe through a respirator, and it can increase the risk of heat stress. Frequent breaks are advised.
- Workers with heart conditions or lung disease should not enter contaminated areas; if they need to wear a respirator, they should consult a doctor first.
- Workers feeling dizzy, faint or nauseous are advised to go to a clean area, remove the respirator and seek medical attention.
- Respirators should be discarded if they become difficult to breathe through or if the inside becomes dirty. Even if they have not become clogged or dirty, they should be discarded at the end of a worker’s shift.