By Doug Parker, Worksafe
To its credit, Cal/OSHA has been on board with our petition for a temporary emergency standard to protect workers from the hazards of wildfire smoke. The agency recommended that the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board vote to approve our petition, and it has worked diligently to convene an advisory committee and prepare draft language.
However, we are concerned that the direction taken in the latest draft language will actually weaken currently required health protections in the most extreme and hazardous environments created by wildfire smoke.
Under current standards, employers must provide respirators to employees when other forms of protection are not feasible and respirators are “necessary to protect the health of the employee.” Employers often, but not always, determine this by referencing exposure limits for specific airborne chemicals and substances set forth in Cal/OSHA standards.
Employers also have an obligation to assess respiratory hazards of exposures such as wildfire smoke, which have no defined exposure limits. Once the requirement for respirators is triggered, there are prescribed processes for implementing a respiratory protection plan, including medical evaluation and fit testing for each employee. While these requirements are vague and inadequate for hazards without a defined exposure limit, they at least mandate protections in the most extreme environments.
We recognize that it would not be feasible on an emergency basis to require employers to fully implement a respiratory protection plan. Instead, we have advocated for employers to be required to make respirators available to workers for voluntary use in most circumstances. However, we also believe the standard needs some trigger at which the concentration of fine particulate matter (PM) in wildfire smoke represents a health hazard that warrants mandatory respiratory protection.
Using the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5 during wildfires as its benchmark,Cal/OSHA’s latest draft sets that mandatory protection level at 501 on an index that stops at 500.
Besides the obvious problem, this benchmark is well beyond recognized hazardous levels. The AQI index for PM2.5 considers 151 unhealthy, 201 very unhealthy, and 301 hazardous — emergency conditions in which the entire population is likely to experience health effects. 501 is literally off the chart. This language appears to give employers a free pass to expose workers to recognized wildfire smoke hazards that, in my view, current standards prohibit.
We have come to a point of reckoning on the issue of wildfire smoke. While I understand employer’s feasibility concerns broadly implementing mandatory respiratory protection, the failure to protect workers now is going to have incalculable future healthcare and other social costs. And we certainly can’t adopt an emergency rule that unwittingly reduces protections for the most exposed workers.