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Wildfire Smoke & Respiratory Protection: What You Need to Know

Toby Graham /

Earlier this month, a lightning storm ignited hundreds of wildfires in northern and central California. As of this writing, dozens of those fires—including two of the largest in the state’s history—are still blazing, and approximately half the state is blanketed in a thick, smoky haze.

This may seem like a freak weather incident, but wildfires and the smoke they produce are now unavoidable realities of modern life—and not just in the Golden State. From Oregon to Nevada, Australia to the Amazon rainforest, fires can start anywhere conditions are hot and dry. And it seems those fires are only becoming bigger, more frequent, and longer-lasting, causing serious air pollution.

Why should you care? Because smoke is a health hazard. That means employers are legally required to protect their workers from it.

Workforce Respiratory Protection: It’s the Law

Wherever you operate, you need to take certain steps to minimize employee exposure to polluted air. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that you have a respiratory protection program in place. 

Several states go beyond federal regulations. 

In California, for instance, many employers must provide N95 respirators to their employees when levels of smoke or other forms of air pollution reach a certain threshold. This necessitates various additional environment, health, and safety procedures such as workplace exposure assessments, medical evaluations, and respirator fit testing.

If you do business in California, you need to adhere to these rules. But even if you’re not located in California, you should be aware of how the state deals with wildfire smoke exposure in the workplace, as other jurisdictions will likely adopt similar standards in the future.

(The following comes from California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, AKA Cal/OSHA, with some adjustments to the text for easier readability. To read the full text of the law, click here or visit dir.ca.gov/dosh.)

Digging into California’s Regulations

To understand how California thinks about smoke, you need to understand some basic science. Air pollution is measured in terms of particulate matter, which are solid and liquid particles suspended in air. The smallest and usually most harmful particulate matter is known as PM2.5, so called because the particles have an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller.

With some exceptions, California’s emergency regulation section 5141.1, Protection from Wildfire Smoke, applies to workplaces and operations where the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5 particulate is 151 or greater (“unhealthy”) and where the employer should reasonably anticipate that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke.

Section 5141.1 requires employers to determine employee exposure to PM2.5 for worksites covered by this section, before each shift and periodically thereafter as needed. Employers can accomplish this by doing any of the following.

  • Checking AQI forecasts and current AQI for PM2.5 from the following web sources:
  • U.S. EPA AirNow
  • U.S. Forest Service Wildland Air Quality Response Program
  • California Air Resources Board
  • Local air pollution control district
  • Local air quality management district
  • Obtaining (by telephone, email, text, or another effective method) AQI forecasts and the current AQI for PM2.5 directly from:
    • EPA
    • California Air Resources Board
    • Local air pollution control district
    • Local air quality management district
  • Measuring current PM2.5 levels with a direct reading instrument, provided measurement is done according to the requirements in section 5141.1, Appendix A.

How to Protect Workers When Outside Air Is Harmful

In California, employers must take the following measures to protect workers when the current AQI is 151 or greater:

  • Implement a system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards in a form readily understandable by all affected employees, including provisions designed to encourage employees to inform the employer of wildfire smoke hazards without fear of reprisal.
  • Train employees according to section 5141.1 Appendix B.
  • Implement engineering controls, when feasible, to reduce employee exposure to PM2.5 to less than a current AQI of 151 (or as low as feasible if less than a current AQI of 151 cannot be achieved). Examples include providing enclosed structures or vehicles for employees to work in, where the air is filtered.
  • Whenever engineering controls are not feasible or do not reduce employee exposures to PM2.5 to less than a current AQI of 151, implement changes to work procedures or schedules when practicable. Examples include changing the location where employees work or their work schedules.
  • Provide proper respiratory protection equipment, such as disposable filtering facepiece respirators (dust masks), other half facepiece respirators, or full facepiece respirators. For further information, read “N95 Mask Commonly Asked Questions”  and “Using Disposable Respirators” (PDF, English and Spanish).

Remember to Use the Right Respirators!

Respiratory devices and face masks (e.g. surgical masks, bandanas) are different things, and not all respirators are created equal.

According to Cal/OSHA: 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 as approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Full facepiece respirators provide at least five times as much protection from fine particles as half facepiece respirators such as filtering facepiece respirators (dust masks).

Workplace requirements depend on the current level of air pollution. When the current AQI for PM2.5 is equal to or greater than 150 but less than 500, you must provide respirators for employee use on a voluntary basis. When the current AQI for PM2.5 is greater than 500, employees must use respirators.

Do you know your respiratory protection basics? Take our quiz.

If you need help implementing a respiratory protection program or ensuring compliance with any workplace health and safety regulation, call or email KPA.

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