August 25, 2021

Protecting employees exposed to wildfire smoke

As smoke from wildfires causes Coloradans to endure some of the poorest air quality on the planet, we’re urging employers to protect employees from the harmful health effects this wildfire smoke presents.

Our occupational safety experts note that when air quality is poor, employers should consider limiting the time that employees spend outdoors. While it’s a peak time for seasonal occupations, employees who spend extended time outside breathing unhealthy air may be exposed to a complex mixture of air pollutants that could impose risks to their safety and health.  Inhaling fine particles in the air can present the greatest risk, reducing lung function, worsening asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions, and can cause coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, burning eyes, and a runny nose, even in individuals with no preexisting sensitivities. Workers may also confuse symptoms of poor air quality with symptoms of COVID-19

“Employers should monitor air quality conditions and create a plan to implement procedures to reduce exposures to smoke when necessary,” said Joan Brown, Pinnacol’s Industrial Hygiene Manager.  “The best way to reduce employee exposure to wildfire smoke is to limit outdoor work.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if employees must work in areas with high levels of smoke, especially for long periods, or if an employee is sensitive to wildfire smoke and feels their health or safety is negatively impacted by smoke exposure, the following steps can be implemented to reduce smoke exposure:

  • Frequently monitor air quality conditions in the area by visiting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) US Fire and Smoke Map or the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) air quality report. The EPA US Fire and Smoke Map provides the Air Quality Index (AQI) for a specific location and specifies a range of air quality from good to hazardous. The AQI is EPA’s color-coded tool for communicating air quality to the public. 
  • Relocate or reschedule work tasks to smoke-free or less smoky areas or times of the day.
  • Reduce levels of physical activity when possible, especially strenuous and heavy work.
  • Require and encourage employees to take frequent breaks in places that are free from smoke.
  • Limit the employee’s smoke exposure by making accommodations for that worker to perform his/her duties indoors or in a location that reduces exposure to smoke, if possible. 

To create an indoor environment that reduces exposure to and protects the occupants from wildfire smoke, the CDC recommends that employers and building managers:

  • Install air cleaners equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters or electrostatic precipitators.
  • Ensure that windows and other building openings such as loading docks and bays are kept closed to reduce overall smoke exposure inside.
  • Operate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in the recirculate setting or temporarily reduce the amount of outdoor air supplied to the building.
  • Install the highest efficiency filters recommended by the designer or manufacturer of the HVAC system.

When the recommendations listed above are not feasible, respiratory protection, such as disposable filtering facepiece respirators (dust masks, N95, KN95), half-mask respirators, or full facepiece respirators can be used to reduce employee exposure to particulates from wildfire smoke. To filter out fine particles, respirators must be labeled N95, N99, N100, R95, P95, P99, or P100, and must be labeled as approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 

Brown also cautioned that cloth face masks offer little protection against the air pollutants in wildfire smoke because they do not capture the smallest particles present.

If an employer requires their employees to use respiratory protection to limit smoke exposure in in the workplace, they must always do it as part of a comprehensive respiratory protection program as required under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134).  

Pinnacol offers a library of resources to help protect your employees, including wildfire safety and respiratory protection resources.