Flash Report: Wildfire Smoke Emergency Rule Adopted

Agreeing that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, the Cal/OSH Standards Board unanimously approved emergency protections for workers exposed to wildfire smoke.

Like many Cal/OSHA regulations, this is the first standard of its kind in the nation. It applies to workplaces where the Air Quality Index reaches 151 – unhealthy – and when employers “should reasonably anticipate” that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke. Exempted are indoor workplaces and enclosed vehicles with filtered air, firefighters engaged in wildland firefighting, and employees with short-term exposure to the foul air (no more than one hour).

Employers will have to monitor their worksites during fire season to check for particulate matter 2.5, the pollutant of concern. Employers would then have to move workers to an indoor location with filtered air or move them to a location where the AQI is below 151. If that’s not feasible, they will have to provide workers with respirators, such as N95s, for voluntary use and train them on the new regulation.

Only in extreme situations – an AQI above 500 – will respirator use be mandatory. Cal/OSHA says such situations are “very rare,” as Division of Occupational Safety and Health Deputy Chief for Health Eric Berg says. But employer representatives say they are not as rare as the Division characterizes them.

The regulation now goes to the Office of Administrative Law for approval under the Administrative Procedures Act, and assuming it is deemed compliant, will go into effect 10 days after OAL receives it. That means the regulations will likely be in effect before August. Cal/OSHA intends to begin working on a permanent version of the regulation quickly, starting with advisory committee talks on August 27th in Oakland.

The regulation was triggered by a petition by several labor groups following two of the worst wildfire seasons in California history, sending thick palls of toxic smoke over metropolitan and rural areas alike. The petitioners noted that outdoor workers have been left virtually unprotected from the smoke, with potentially serious long-term health implications.

Employer representatives, while supporting emergency protections, say the resulting rules fail to provide clear guidelines for employers and in some situations could actually put employees in danger. But Standards Board labor member David Harrison commented, “Don’t let ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good’.”

Standards Board chair David Thomas acknowledged that the emergency regulation has raised some questions, but noted that DOSH “did a good job of threading the needle with no glasses on.” He added, “I’m proud that we are putting this emergency regulation into being.”

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