Still Breathing Wildfire Smoke on the Job

By Stephen Knight, Worksafe

March 2019: Members of IDEPSCA and the Pasadena Community Job Center convince the Cal/OSHA Standards Board to create rules for wildfire smoke hazards.

As California chokes this week on thick wildfire smoke, we are having a complicated moment here at Worksafe. Protecting outdoor workers from smoke hazards has been one of our key campaigns over the past 18 months. We have been preparing for exactly this situation: outdoor workers, many in agriculture and construction, being exposed to hazardous air without adequate protections.

Getting a Cal/OSHA emergency standard for wildfire smoke last year was a big win for California workers. It shows how impacted workers, supported by organizations like Worksafe, can speak up and demand change. And it is great to see these new labor rights described matter-of-factly in news coverage of the current wildfires.

But it is also clear that we have a long way to go before conditions in the field​s and on construction sites are actually improved. The United Farm Workers conducted a poll this week: 84% of the workers they surveyed had not been provided with N95 respirators by their employers as required by the new Cal/OSHA regulation.

Of course, since this rule was enacted a pandemic has swept across the state, country, and world. A central feature of our government’s incompetent response to COVID-19 remains an inability to supply workers with the respirators that they need to keep themselves safe, whether in health care or agriculture. Employers who made little to no effort to prepare for entirely foreseeable catastrophes are now pushing back strongly against any semblance of accountability for the real illness and death faced by their employees as a result.

There are so many structural barriers (race, class and gender at the heart of most of them) that every victory can be contingent or compromised, and the appearance of new obstacles can feel overwhelming. We’re reminded that passing new policies is really just the start — education and enforcement are the crucial next steps.

In the coming months we’re nailing down the wildfire smoke standard as a permanent rule, pressing for an emergency standard related to COVID, and considering what else workers may need to face the next crisis. We will reflect on the continuing reality on the ground to hold ourselves accountable.

Originally published at worksafe.org.