Employer smoke incidents and their prevention in light of the 2023 Canadian wildfires

Employer smoke incidents and their prevention in light of the 2023 Canadian wildfires

From January to May 2023, 18,015 fires burned nearly 510,000 acres across the United States, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Wildfires on the West Coast have become so common that safety and health regulators in California, Oregon and Washington have issued regulations specifically for the risks associated with wildfire smoke.

Quick visits

  • Smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketing parts of the U.S. and Canada has prompted several states and localities — even south of Alabama — to issue air quality alerts.
  • On June 9, 2023, OSHA issued a press release advising employers about Canadian wildfires and referring to the agency’s “comprehensive website” on wildfires.
  • Employers in affected states may want to consider taking precautionary measures to ensure the safety and health of affected employees in the face of unprecedented wildfire smoke.
  • Wildfire smoke demonstrates the value of implementing workplace protocols and procedures that take into account potential wildfire smoke and other pollutants.

As of June 9, 2023, there were more than 460 fires burning in Canada, including more than 130 in Quebec, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In response to the fires, OSHA issued a press release on June 9, 2023, urging “employers to develop a plan to protect outdoor workers from hazards associated with poor air quality.”

“Unprecedented” coast-to-coast wildfires in Canada have raised severe concerns about air quality across the East Coast. On June 7, air quality in Brooklyn, New York, reached 413 instead of its average rating of 50 on the Air Quality Index (AQI), a scale developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to measure pollution. The Air Quality Index (AQI) runs on a scale of 0 to 500, where 0 to 50 is “good” and 301 to 500 is “dangerous.” On June 8, 2023, a thick haze of smoke in New York resulting from Canadian wildfires causes New York City to record high levels of air pollution. Other locations across the Northeast, including Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont, have issued air quality advisories among a slew of outdoor activities canceled as wildfires continue to rage.

The Canadian wildfires have also raised concerns about air quality risks westward. Near-surface smoke also covers states from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast states. Smoke from Canadian wildfires has triggered air quality alerts for three major metropolitan areas in Alabama, as well as cities in Georgia and Tennessee.

While three West Coast states have safety and health standards in place, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and states operating under OSHA-approved plans do not. The lack of specific standards will not prevent these agencies from working. OSHA could choose to proceed under the general duty provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act: “Every employer must provide each of its employees with a job and a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or bodily harm.” “Dangerous for his employees.” Even before the National Focus Program on Heat-Related Hazards, which OSHA launched in April 2022, the agency issued citations for heat-related hazards under the General Duty Clause.

Regardless of what OSHA and state agencies may or may not do in response to current weather conditions, employers in affected states may want to consider preventive measures they can take to ensure the safety and health of affected employees in the face of unprecedented wildfire smoke. While air quality has begun to improve in the Northeast, and is expected to continue to improve across the country, this event — albeit a one-time event — demonstrates the value of implementing workplace protocols and procedures that take into account potential wildfire smoke and other pollutants all Employer. Taking pages from the West Coast regulatory operating manuals is a good place to start.

Immediate measures could include:

  • Conduct a risk assessment to identify potential risks and damages, including assessing the Air Quality Index (AQI) at locations where employees work;
  • Temporarily move employees to indoor areas or vehicles with adequate air filtration;
  • Increase the frequency and/or duration of rest periods;
  • Use portable air purifiers equipped with high-efficiency particulate matter adsorbent (HEPA) or similar filters in enclosed work areas;
  • Changing work schedules, reducing work intensity, or providing additional rest periods;
  • For outdoor work, provide personal protective equipment such as masks and tight-fitting protective eye gear (to provide a barrier to smoky airflow);
  • Providing first aid measures such as artificial tears and cold compresses;
  • Educate employees about the symptoms of smoke inhalation and provide immediate counseling to supervisory employees regarding these symptoms;
  • Implement an emergency system for communicating wildfire smoke hazards in a format that is easy to understand for all affected employees; And
  • Inform employees of any departmental policies that allow workplace accommodations for health concerns and complications related to air pollutants.

Employers may also want to consider developing an established air quality safety and health plan. Wildfire smoke isn’t the only cause of air quality risks. In the Southeast, near ground-level ozone levels, other particulates and airborne heat can create unhealthy air quality resulting in public health warnings and advisories. These air quality conditions are considered ripe for OSHA’s examination of employer safety measures under the General Duty Clause. Acting now rather than reacting later can be a good addition to any safety program.

Ogletree Deakins’ Workplace Safety and Health Practice Group will continue to monitor developments and will post updates to the Workplace Safety and Health Blog as additional information becomes available.

For more information about workplace safety and health risks related to wildfire smoke, air quality, and heat exposure, as well as federal and state regulatory compliance concerns, please join us for our upcoming webinar, “Wildfire Smoke and Heat Illness.” Prevention: A Timely Update on Workplace Safety and Health,” which will be held on Thursday, June 15, 2023, from 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM EST. Speakers Wayne Pinkston and Philip Russell will discuss the central issues. Register here.

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