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 Wildfire Smoke Employee Protection Resources

Bryan Little, Farm Employers Labor Service

UPDATED: August 1, 2022

UPDATE August 2021: Oregon OSHA Publishes Temporary Wildfire Smoke Rule: Beginning August 9, 2021, Oregon farm employers will be required to implement protections against wildfire smoke, requiring employee training and provision for voluntary use when the Air Quality Index (AQI) exceeds 101, use of feasible engineering or administrative controls to reduce exposures below an AQI of 201, and implementation of a complete respiratory protection program when the AQI exceeds 501. The new rule will be effective for 6 months.  You can find a summary here, and regulatory language here

UPDATE February 2021: After a May 2021 hearing and two comment periods, the Cal/OSHA Standards Board approved in December 2021 a final permanent Wildfire Smoke Protection regulation.  The final regulation included numerous technical and clarifying changes to the July 2019 temporary regulation.

UPDATE August 2020: Recent heavy use of N95 respirators by healthcare employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic has created a serious shortage of the respirators of the type required by Cal/OSHA's 2019 Wildfire Smoke regulation.  A number of wildfires are occuring as of this writing and air quality has reached levels sufficient to trigger GISO 5141.1, the wildfire smoke regulation, in many areas of California.  We urge agricultural employers to monitor their customary vendors of N95 respirators (which are also frequently used for pesticide applications) and begin to stockpile N95 respirators as should they become available.

Through the efforts of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), the Office of Emergency Services (OES) will make one million N95 respirators available to counties for distribution to agricultural employers from the state's PPE stockpile.  OES has requested the Department of General Services (DGS) expedite shipments.  It is hoped deliveries will be made over the next few days. 

In early June 2020, a coalition of employers of outdoor workers including FELS' parent organization, California Farm Bureau Federation, sent a letter to Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker highlighting the challenges the shortage of N95 respirators poses to employers of outdoor workers, including agricultural employers.  You can read that letter here.  Given that agriculture has been designated a critical infrastructure industry that should continue operations through the COVID-19 pandemic but N95 respirators have generally (and appropriately) channeled to use by health care providers, this is a complicated and problematic situation.  

FELS' parent organization, California Farm Bureau Federation, has been advocating for a solution to this problem with the various agencies of the Department of Industrial Relation (DIR), including the Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the Cal/OSHA Standards Board.  Such solutions might include allowing use of alternative respiratory protection under certain conditions or making non-medical-grade N95 respirators available to agricultural employers.  As of this writing, the Department has not taken any action. 

UPDATE August 2019: The Cal/OSHA emergency regulation requiring protection for workers exposed to smoke from wildfires became effective on July 30, 2019 (see Cal/OSHA Press Release, Cal/OSHA Emergency Regulation to Protect Outdoor Workers from Wildfire Smoke in Effect, July 30, 2019).  The result of a petition submitted in November 2018 by California Labor Federation and WorkSafe.  While the emergency regulation is in effect, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) will conduct a rulemaking to create a permanent wildfire smoke regulation.



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Compliance with the Wildfire Smoke Regulation:

  • Employers must protect workers from exposure to wildfire smoke under these conditions:
    • An Air Quality Index (AQI) greater than 150 (Hazardous for Sensitive Groups) resulting from the presence of particulate matter of 2.5 microns or smaller (the regulation is not triggered by the presence of other pollutants that may result in an AQI of 150 or greater (ozone, for example); and,
    • The employer should "reasonably anticipate" that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke. 

You can obtain information about current air quality conditions at US EPA AirNow, US Forest Service Wildland Air Quality Response Program, and California Air Resources Board.

  • Exemptions
    • Employees in workplaces in enclosed buildings or vehicles with filtered air supplies are exempted.
    • Employees who are exposed for a total of one hour or less during a shift are exempted.
  • Employee Communication and Training
    • Communicate information in a manner readily understandable by all affected employees.
    • Encourage employees to communicate to you about possible wildfire smoke hazards without fear of reprisal.
    • Inform employees about the current PM 2.5 AQI and protective measures available to them to reduce wildfire smoke exposures.
    • Encourage employees to inform you about worsening air quality and any adverse symptoms experienced due to wildfire smoke exposure, including asthma, breathing difficulty and chest pain.
    • Provide effective training and instruction using the regulation's Appendix B (regulatory text linked above in English and Spanish includes Appendix B); this can take the form of workplace training similar to other types of safety trainings you provide employees.
  • Control of Wildfire Smoke Exposure:
    • Check air quality at the location where employees will be working, both before and periodically during each shift, particularly if you have reason to believe the air quality may be such that it would trigger the regulation.
    • Use engineering controls (where feasible): providing enclosed buildings, structures, or vehicles with filtered air; 
    • Use administrative controls (if practicable) where engineering controls are infeasible or cannot reduce PM 2.5 exposure to an AQI 150 or less: relocating work to a location where AQI is 150 or less for PM 2.5, change work schedules to allow work when air quality is not hazardous, reduce work intensity, or provide additional rest periods;
    • Use respiratory protection equipment (respirators) where engineering controls are infeasible and administrative controls are not practicable to reduce exposures to below AQI 150 for PM 2.5.
    • Use NIOSH-approved respirators such as N-95 respirators (see N95 Mask Commonly Asked Questions, California Office of Emergency Services).
    • Provide respirators for voluntary use and encourage employees to use them. 
    • Respirator use requirements such as fit-testing and medical evaluation are not required for respirators provided for voluntary use under GISO 5141.1, Protection from Wildfire Smoke. 
    • Train employees using Appendix B and make it available to them in their preferred language.  Information in Appendix B and in instructions provided with respirators themselves like fit-testing, medical evaluation, and shaving of facial hair do not apply under this regulation.
    • N95 respirators are generally readily available, but supplies might be short during a wildfire, so be prepared.  You can order from: Uline   Amazon   Gempler's   Grainger.
    • When AQI exceeds 500 from PM 2.5 during a wildfire smoke event, you must comply with respirator use regulations as specified in GISO 5141, Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees.  Generally, GISO 5141 imposes requirements for feasible engineering controls, practicable administrative controls where engineering controls are infeasible or insufficiently effective, requires use of respirators when engineering controls and administrative controls prove inadequate, requires medical evaluation and fit-testing, imposes respirator selection criteria and requires implementation of a respirator program.  AQI exceeding 500 for PM 2.5 has been seen for relatively short periods of time in past wildfires; given the probably short duration of such conditions and the time-consuming administrative burdens of GISO 5141, you might want to elect to cease operations until the AQI for PM 2.5 drops below 500 at which time you may resume operations under GISO 5141.1