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OSHA to employers: Protect workers from wildfire smoke, poor air quality

Photo: gschroer/iStockphoto

Washington — As wildfires continue to bring smoke to multiple regions of the United States, OSHA is urging employers to protect workers from poor air quality – and is highlighting resources that can help. 

“Wildfire smoke exposure can create major health hazards for outdoor workers. These hazards can be reduced with knowledge, safe work practices and appropriate personal protective equipment,” OSHA leader Doug Parker says in a June 9 press release. “I urge all employers to have plans and preparations in place to protect workers by preventing or minimizing exposure to hazardous air quality.”

OSHA says the greatest hazard from wildfire smoke is exposure to particulate matter, particles of partially burned material that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Those particles can enter the lungs or bloodstream, and have been linked to heart, kidney and lung diseases.

“Workers exposed to smoke-polluted air may experience heat stress, eye and respiratory tract irritation, and suffer from exposure to other respiratory hazards caused by hazardous substances such as heavy metals entering the atmosphere,” OSHA states.

The agency says employers should:

  • Frequently monitor air quality conditions using a source such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow.
  • Relocate or reschedule work tasks to smoke-free areas.
  • Reduce levels of physical activity, especially strenuous and heavy work.
  • Require and encourage workers to take breaks in smoke-free places when possible.
  • Make accommodations for employees to work inside with proper HVAC systems and high efficiency air filters when possible.
  • Provide or allow the use of NIOSH-approved respirators for voluntary use, when not otherwise required. When allowing respirators for voluntary use, employers must provide employees with the advisory information in Appendix D of OSHA’s Respirator Protection Standard.

OSHA has additional resources available at osha.gov/wildfires and NIOSH has a webpage on exposure to wildfire smoke.

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