With the increasing prevalence of wildfires, the need to keep people safe from the dangers of wildfire smoke is all too real. Smoke from wildfires contains noxious gases and fine particles that can affect human health.
For occupational health and safety managers, this responsibility means taking steps to protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke dangers, including planning and preparing for seasonal wildfires that seem to burn stronger and hotter every year.
And, because experts say wildfire smoke drifts farther than previously known, the poor air quality from wildfire smoke affects more workers than previously understood.
“When plumes [of smoke] stretch several miles up in the atmosphere and are carried along the jet stream, they move pretty quickly through the air,” Jessica Leigh Hester writes in Atlas Obscura.
In 2018, she continues, “smoke and particles from 15 fires burning across California reached New York, and smoke from billows in British Columbia drifted across Canada and were visible from a satellite more than one million miles away.”
Occupational health and safety managers who understand the dangers of wildfire smoke would be able to plan and execute protective measures quickly – no matter where their workers were located.
Wildfire Smoke Dangers and the Impact on Human Health
Wildfire smoke contains a combination of fine particles, gasses and water vapor. The specific composition of gasses and particulates in wildfire smoke depends on the types of wood and vegetation that is burning, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) explains, but typically includes a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons.
Breathing in carbon monoxide alone can decrease the body’s oxygen supply and cause headaches, reduce alertness, and aggravate heart conditions.
Other dangers posed by wildfire smoke include:
- Aggravating underlying conditions, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and respiratory infection
- Causing or contributing to adverse reproductive, developmental, and neurodegenerative diseases
- Triggering death by asphyxiation or cardiovascular events.
Fine particulates can lodge deep in the lungs, which is why occupational health and safety professionals need to take measures to protect workers from the dangers of wildfire smoke.
California’s New Safety Standards
Because a large portion of California’s workforce works outdoors, the state has implemented new safety standards designed to protect outdoor workers from the dangers of wildfire smoke. According to Safety and Health Magazine, California’s new standards state that all employers must “provide N95 respirators to outdoor workers when the local air quality index for the smallest particulate matter – PM2.5 – is 151 or higher, and when employers reasonably anticipate that employees could be exposed to wildfire smoke.”
Employers are also required to:
- Identify harmful exposure levels from wildfire smoke before each shift and periodically thereafter by checking the AQI (Air Quality Index) level where workers are located
- Reduce exposures, if possible, by relocating work to an enclosed building with filtered air or an outdoor area with a safer AQI level.
What Occupational Health and Safety Managers Can Do to Protect Workers from Wildfire Smoke
Because of the dangers that wildfire smoke poses to employee health and safety, all occupational health and safety managers should consider certain measures during wildfire season, including:
- Understand the AQI ratings for PM2.5. According to AirNow.gov, these are:
- Good (0-50): Air quality is considered satisfactory and air pollution poses little or no risk.
- Moderate (51-100): Air quality is acceptable; however, some pollutants may cause a moderate health concern for a very small number of people – for example, people who are unusually sensitive to ozone may experience respiratory symptoms.
- Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (101-150): Although the general public is not likely to be affected at this AQI range, people with lung disease, older adults and children are at a greater risk from exposure to ozone and the presence of particles in the air.
- Unhealthy (151-200): Everyone may begin to experience some adverse health effects, and members of the sensitive groups may experience more serious effects.
- Very Unhealthy (201-300): This level would trigger a health alert signifying that everyone may experience more serious health effects.
- Hazardous (301-500): This level would trigger health warnings of emergency conditions; the entire population is likely to be affected.
- Monitor the AQI periodically during each shift
- Order and maintain enough N95 respirators for every outdoor worker
- Lower employee exposure to unsafe air conditions as much as possible by:
- Creating indoor work environments where air is filtered (which could be an outdoor structure or vehicle)
- Moving outdoor workers to a location with a lower AQI
- Reducing work time in areas with unfiltered air
- Providing time for rest in an area with filtered air
- Reducing the physical intensity of work being done in unsafe conditions.
About Eastern Kentucky University’s Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety Program
Eastern Kentucky University’s online Bachelor’s degree in Occupational Health and Safety is designed to show students how to identify safety risks and potential areas of improvement in workplace conditions. This degree can prepare graduates for positions as safety coordinators or many other occupational health and safety careers.
Industry-experienced safety professionals guide students through occupational safety courses, covering modern trends in employee engagement and the establishment of a safety culture in the workplace.
Atlas Obscura, “How Wildfire Drifts So Quickly”
FS.USDA.gov, “Wildfire Smoke and Your Health”
New York State Department of Health, “Exposure to Smoke from Fires”
NIH.gov, “Clearing the Air on Personal Interventions to Reduce Exposure to Wildfire Smoke”
Safety and Health Magazine, “California Enacts Emergency Wildfire Smoke Standard for Outdoor Workers”
California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, Protection from Wildfire Smoke
Dir.CA.gov, Appendix B to Section 5141.1. Protection from Wildfire Smoke Information to Be Provided to Employees (Mandatory)