Wildfire smoke is an increasing danger to Washington workers. To protect workers, a new Emergency Wildfire Smoke rule is effective June 15 through September 29, 2022.
Wildfire smoke is made up of harmful chemicals and tiny particles suspended in the air. This smoke can make anyone sick, even healthy individuals.
Wildfire smoke can cause mild symptoms like:
- Scratchy throat,
- Stinging eyes,
The smoke can also cause serious and sometimes fatal health effects, including:
- Chest pain and heart attacks.
- Asthma attacks.
- Trouble breathing.
Smoke levels can change frequently. It is important to know when smoke levels reach a point where it becomes dangerous. In that case, certain protective measures are required to be in place to protect employees working in wildfire smoke.
Some common online tools to find current air quality information include:
- Air Quality Map from the Washington State Department of Ecology
- AirNow.gov from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- U.S. Forest Service tools, which measure particulate matter in the air
Air quality information is reported primarily in two ways:
- Fine particulate matter called PM5.
- Air Quality Index or AQI for PM5. AQI factors five major air pollutants including PM2.5 into its measurement.
The table below shows the thresholds at which wildfire smoke precautions must be taken by employers and employees.
|PM2.5 in micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3)||Air Quality Index for PM2.5 (AQI)|
|20.5 µg/m3||AQI 69|
|35.5 µg/m3||AQI 101|
|555 µg/m3||Beyond the AQI|
If possible, limit outdoor work when there are high levels of wildfire smoke. Some ways to protect workers from wildfire smoke include:
- Changing work schedules or moving work indoors.
- Reducing the physical intensity of the work or increasing rest periods.
- Providing respirators.
Respirators filter the air to protect worker’s lungs. Properly fitted respirators can significantly reduce a worker’s exposure to wildfire smoke. A common respirator worn to protect workers is an N95.
Bandanas, scarves, facemasks, KN95’s, or t-shirts worn over the nose and mouth will not adequately provide protection against wildfire smoke.
Working in wildfire smoke can make people sick. Workers need to alert their employer if they experience any health effects from wildfire smoke exposure. In severe cases, workers may need immediate medical treatment.
Employers are never allowed to retaliate against an employee for reporting an air quality hazard, an adverse health effect, or for seeking medical treatment due to a work-related illness or injury.
Summary of the 2022 Wildfire Smoke Emergency Rule, WAC 296-62-085
In general, the emergency wildfire smoke rule applies when smoke levels are at 20.5 µg/m3 (AQI 69) or higher. Some exemptions include:
- Workplaces in enclosed buildings or vehicles, given certain controls are in place.
- Employees exposed for one hour or less of work time per day.
To summarize, the rule requires covered employers to:
- Have a written wildfire smoke response plan.
- Determine employee smoke exposure levels before work and periodically during each shift when smoke is present.
- Train employees on wildfire smoke hazards.
- Train supervisors on how to respond to health issues caused by wildfire smoke.
- Inform employees of available protective measures against wildfire smoke.
When wildfire smoke conditions reach 35.5 µg/m3 (AQI 101) additional requirements include:
- Alert employees of the smoke levels.
- Provide respirators and encourage their use.
- When feasible, limit employee exposures to wildfire smoke.
When smoke levels are at 555 µg/m3 or higher, additional respirator requirements apply.
You can read the full requirements employers need to follow in the Emergency Wildfire Smoke Rule, WAC 296-62-085.