By Craig W. Anderson 

EMERGENCY REGULATIONS from Cal/OSHA requiring employers to protect workers from hazards of wildfire smoke became effective July 30 following approval from the state’s Office of Administrative Law.

“Currently this is an emergency regulation but the OSHA Standards Board will be meeting soon to establish a permanent regulation,” said Amy Blagg, chair of SJFB’s Rural Health and Safety Advisory Committee.

She explained the regulation applies to workplaces where the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for airborne particulate matter (PM) is 151 or higher and where employers should reasonably anticipate that employees could be exposed to wildfire smoke.

The regulation is effective through Jan. 28, 2020, with the possibility of two 90-day extensions, if needed.

Cal/OSHA’s Standards Board of the Department of Industrial Relations duty is to adopt “reasonable and enforceable standards at least as effective as federal standards.”

“This is a complex and detailed regulatory reaction and it’s good because it’s intended to protect a wide variety of ag workers,” said Ken Vogel SJFB first vice president. “However, with programs like this there are always unintended and unforeseen consequences.”

Many growers avail themselves of scheduled burn days because, Vogel said, “for some of us chipping and grinding up trees isn’t sufficient to disposing of waste wood and we have to burn. Will this be curtailed? Will the contacts for air quality conditions provide the same information?”

He suggested everyone affected by this new regulation examine it closely because it deals with worker’s safety and health “and I hope there won’t be undue and burdensome paperwork to appease a large, new bureaucracythat might spring up.”

Employers must protect workers from exposure to wildfire smoke under these conditions:

An AQI greater that 150 (Hazardous for Sensitive Groups) resulting from the presence of PM of 2.5 microns or smaller in regions where workers are located;

The employer should “reasonably anticipate” that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke;

Reduce harmful exposure to wildfire smoke if feasible, for example, by relocating work to an enclosed building with filtered air or to an outdoor location where the AQI for PM 2.5 is 150 or lower;

If employers cannot reduce workers’ harmful exposure to wildfire smoke in an environment with an AQI of 150 or lower, they must provide: respirators such as N95 masks to all employees for voluntary use, and training on the new regulation, the health effects of wildfire smoke and the safe use and maintenance of respirators.

“The regulation isn’t triggered by the presence of other pollutants, such as ozone, that could increase the AQI to 150 or higher,” Blagg explained.

Exemptions for various workplaces and operations include enclosed buildings with filtered air and where windows, doors, bays and other openings are kept closed; enclosed vehicles with filtered cabin air and all outside openings closed; the employer can demonstrate that the PM concentration and AQI standards are within acceptable parameters; and “employees exposed for a total of one hour or less during a shift.”

Blagg said this regulation has the potential to impact employers throughout the state, “even if a wildfire is not in their immediate area. For example, in the days following the Camp Fire in November of last year, Stockton had 11 days where the AQI was over 151 due to the fire.”

She added, “Had the Wildfire Smoke Regulation been in place last year, employers would have had to comply.”

Blagg also noted, “If farmers anticipate that they could have a situation where their employees’ exposure to wildfire smoke couldn’t be reduced, they should be prepared by having a sufficient number of respirators on-hand and a training program in place.”

Information on current AQI and PM levels is available at US EPA AirNow, the US Forest Service Wildland Air Quality Response Program and California Air Resources Board.

Employee communication and training is vital, she said, and it consists, as a minimum, of the following:

  • information being communicated in a manner readily understandable by all affected employees;
  • employees encouraged to communicate possible wildfire smoke hazards without fear of reprisal;
  • inform employees about the current atmosphere conditions and the protective measures available to them;
  • encourage employees to inform managers/foremen/owners about worsening air quality and any adverse symptoms experienced, including asthma, breathing difficulty andchest pain with wildfire smoke as a potential cause; and
  • provide effective training similar to other types of safety trainings provided to employees.
  • Controlling wildfire smoke exposure can be accomplished in multiple ways including the following:
  • Monitorair quality at the work site, before and during each shift;
  • Engineering controls such as enclosed buildings or vehicles with filtered air;
  • Administrative controls where feasible including relocate work, change work schedules, reduce work intensity or provide additional rest periods; and
  • Use NIOSH respiratory protection equipment such as the NIOSH approved N 95 model and provide as for voluntary use properly fit tested. They can be ordered from Uline, Amazon, Gempler’s and Grainger.

Of course, with employers providing N95 masks and perhaps having to deal with increased paperwork and being required to respond to a potentially large and newly cumbersome bureaucracy, employers are hoping any financial and time burdens will be minimal.

For all of the latest information about this program, search the Internet for: Cal/OSHA Wildfire Smoke Regulation Compliance Resources Aug. 1, 2019.