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Working in Wildfire-Impacted Areas

Bryan Little, Farm Employers Labor Service

Updated Nov. 14, 2018

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has re-issued an advisory concerning wildfire smoke and potential impacts on worker safety and health.  The agency advises employers that in areas where local air quality officials find air quality to be hazardous or unhealthy, employers are required by Cal/OSHA's standards to determine if exposure to wildfire smoke is a harmful exposure. Exposure is harmful when the pollution or contaminants in the air cause (or are likely to cause) injury, illness, disease, impairment or loss of function. Impairment and loss of function could include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, frequent coughing, and severe eye and throat irritation.

Injury & Illness Prevention Program requirements

California occupational safety and health regulations require employers to create and implement an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP) (Title 8 California Code of Regulations (CCR) section 3203).

(Note: The Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) website accessible by this link features additional links to sample IIPPs, including one for agricultural employers. Cal/OSHA provides a step-by-step eTool to help you implement an IIPP, which you can access through one of the links mentioned above. FELS can provide you with a personalized IIPP with the purchase of a FELS HR Compliance Manual.

In general, you must evaluate workplace hazards and provide appropriate protections to employees, including: engineering controls (engineering the workplace to control or eliminate a hazard); administrative controls (limiting employee exposure by limiting the time of possible exposure on the part of an employee); or personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect the employee from the hazard if neither engineering controls nor administrative controls can be implemented. Basic IIPP requirements include hazard evaluation, determination of appropriate hazard abatement, employee training if needed, and implementation of engineering, administrative, or personal protective equipment controls.

Respiratory Protection Requirements

If you determine a respiratory hazard is present, Cal/OSHA standards require you to create and implement a written respirator use program (a respirator program is also featured in the FELS HR Compliance Manual.)  Such a program entails documentation of your decisions about the presence of a respiratory hazard, selection of an appropriate respirator, medical evaluation of employees before they work in environments the employer has determined require use of a respirator, fit-testing of the employee and respirator, and employee training in use and maintenance of the respirator. Fit-testing is an involved process requiring a trained fit-test evaluator using a standardized fit-testing protocol. 

If you choose to have employees use a “tight-fitting” respirator (one with a seal between the facepiece and the skin of the face), employees using those respirators may not have facial hair that will interfere with the seal.

(Note: FELS Labor Management Consultants can conduct respirator fit-testing and training at your farm or ranch; for details, please contact FELS at 800-753-9073 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Wildfire Impacts

You may be facing the need to resume or continue harvest or other operations in the ongoing presence of wildfire smoke. Because this situation is so unusual and likely was not anticipated, it is unlikely you have either an IIPP that covers wildfire smoke or a written respiratory protection program that covers employees other than pesticide applicators.

An option other than trying to implement a full written respirator program with medical evaluation is to permit voluntary use of filtering facepiece respirators. You may permit voluntary respirator use without a written respirator program and attendant requirements, including a medical evaluation (T8 CCR 5144 (c)(2)(B)). Voluntary respirator use is permissible if:

  • You do not require respirator use;
  • Respirator use is not required to protect the health of the employee; and,
  • You determine the use of the respirator itself does not create a hazard.

Voluntary use is permissible for filtering facepiece respirators only. (California Department of Public Health recommends a respirator classified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as either “N95” or “P100”; they are available in many hardware stores, home improvement stores, and pharmacies; also refer to this FELS "Safety Training for Agricultural Workers: Protect Your Lungs from Wildfire Smoke.")

If you permit voluntary respirator use, you must furnish employees voluntarily using respirators with T8 CCR 5144 Appendix D, “Information for Employees Using Respirators When Not Required Under the Standard” (below).  You should also have posted in your worksite the respirator notice required by T3 CCR 6739(r), “Voluntary Respirator Use Posting,” which is included with FELS’s Employment Notifications Book & Laminated Posters, available on the FELS website.

A filtering facepiece respirator of the type you can provide for voluntary use will protect your employees from particulate matter if used properly (see the California Department of Public Health fact sheet above for information on proper use of filtering facepiece respirators), but it will not protect against other air contaminants that may be present, such as carbon monoxide (CO). Use of respirators providing such protection requires implementation of a written respirator program with medical evaluation protocols. FELS’s sources indicate that Cal/OSHA is not finding indications that CO is being found widely in wildfire-impacted areas. Cal/OSHA is also not known at this time to be conducting programmed worksite inspections focused on respirator compliance in wildfire-impacted areas. If you know of the presence of air contaminants (see T8 CCR 5155, Airborne Contaminants) that exceed Cal/OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs), you must implement mandatory use of appropriate respirators with a written respirator program and all attendant requirements.

Below is the text of the information T8 CCR 5144 Appendix D requires you to provide to employees voluntarily using filtering facepiece respirators:

Information for Employees Using Respirators When Not Required Under the Standard

Respirators are an effective method of protection against designated hazards when properly selected and worn. Respirator use is encouraged even when exposures are below the exposure limit, to provide an additional level of comfort and protection for workers. However, if a respirator is used improperly or not kept clean, the respirator itself can become a hazard to the worker. Sometimes, workers may wear respirators to avoid exposures to hazards, even if the amount of hazardous substance does not exceed the limits set by OSHA standards. If your employer provides respirators for your voluntary use, or if you provide your own respirator, you need to take certain precautions to be sure that the respirator itself does not present a hazard.

You should do the following:

  1. Read and heed all instructions provided by the manufacturer on use, maintenance, cleaning and care, and warnings regarding the respirators limitations.
  2. Choose respirators certified for use to protect against the contaminant of concern. NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, certifies respirators. A label or statement of certification should appear on the respirator or respirator packaging. It will tell you what the respirator is designed for and how much it will protect you.
  3. Do not wear your respirator into atmospheres containing contaminants for which your respirator is not designated to protect against. For example, a respirator designed to filter dust particles will not protect you against gases, vapors or very small solid particles of fumes or smoke.
  4. Keep track of your respirator so you do not mistakenly use someone else's respirator.

FELS cautions you to be aware of public perceptions that may be created if employees are seen (or portrayed in the media) harvesting food or wine grapes using personal protective equipment like respirators.  Public perceptions about the quality or safety of these products could be problematic.

If FELS can be of further assistance, please contact us at 800-753-9073 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..