Tumwater, WA — The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries has issued an emergency rule that increases protections for workers exposed to unhealthy air caused by wildfire smoke.
Announced in a July 16 press release, the emergency rule – which went into effect immediately – details how employers can identify harmful smoke exposure risks and when to notify workers. While developing the rule, Washington L&I gathered stakeholder input and referenced California’s regulations, the first in the nation to be implemented. More than 600 wildfires have been reported in the state this year – about double the normal rate, the release states, citing data from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
Wildfire smoke contains hazardous chemicals, gases, and fine particles. Particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in size – known as PM2.5 – can be inhaled and settle deep into the lungs, worsening conditions such as asthma as well as adversely affecting heart health and other conditions.
Under the rules, employers are responsible for:
● Educating supervisors and workers about wildfire smoke.
● Making sure that employees who are showing symptoms of exposure are monitored and receive necessary medical care.
● Eliminating or reducing wildfire smoke exposures where feasible, especially when PM2.5 levels are high.
In addition, the rule sets the standard for dangerously poor air quality at PM2.5 concentrations of 55.5 micrograms per cubic meter or an air quality index of 151.
The agency says employers also can protect workers by moving work to areas with lower smoke exposure; relocating work to indoor settings with adequately filtered air; reducing work intensity; offering more rest periods; and providing respirators, such as N95s, or KN95 disposable masks at no cost for voluntary use when the air quality is poor.
The agency filed a preproposal for permanent rulemaking, citing the increase in wildfire smoke exposure, which is “now potentially presenting important health risks to all outdoor workers, including those in construction and agriculture.”
In the release, Washington L&I Director Joel Sack said: “This wildfire season is shaping up to be even worse than last year. We’re establishing these emergency rules to protect employees who have to work outside, breathing in smoky air all day long.”