Earlier this month, the East Coast of the U.S. was blanketed in smoke from Canadian wildfires. The Air Quality Index (AQI) – the Environmental Protection Agency’s scale used to measure particulate matter in the air – peaked at over 400 in New York City. Above an AQI of 300, the amount of smoke in the air is designated as “hazardous” and people are encouraged to avoid all physical activity outdoors.
While this was the worst air quality the East Coast has experienced in over 20 years, poor air quality due to wildfire smoke has become increasingly common in Western states like California, Washington and Oregon.
“Unlike most hazards in the construction industry, wildfire smoke can travel thousands of miles and negatively impact workers’ health on and off the job,” says LIUNA General President and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Brent Booker. “During times of poor air quality, LIUNA signatory contractors should take time to understand the hazard, implement available controls and educate members about the steps they can take in their off hours.”
Step 1: Understand the Hazard & AQI
Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of gases, fine particles and different compounds, including carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and aldehydes. This mixture of smoke and particulate matter can irritate the eyes, throat and lungs, leading to coughing and making normal breathing more difficult. More extreme health effects include chest pain, shortness of breath and asthma attacks. Exposure to wildfire smoke can also worsen chronic heart and lung conditions.
Employers and workers should be familiar with how to find daily Air Quality Index readings from https://fire.airnow.gov and interpret the results. There are six AQI levels with different outdoor activity recommendations based on age and health status.
Step 2: Protect Workers on the Job
For LIUNA signatory contractors and other employers seeking a model standard, Oregon’s wildfire smoke rule is the most comprehensive and stringent state standard available. Once the AQI reaches 101, it requires employers to monitor the AQI regularly, reduce wildfire smoke exposure through controls, provide respirators to workers and train workers on the hazards of wildfire smoke.
The LHSFNA recommends that employers take the following steps to protect workers from wildfire smoke:
- Develop an emergency action plan that includes steps for different air quality scenarios.
- Train workers on the signs and symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure and the steps to take in the event of an emergency.
- Check the AQI or Fire and Smoke Map before work begins and during each shift.
- Utilize engineering controls when feasible, such as access to enclosed structures or vehicles where the air is filtered.
- Relocate or reschedule work to smoke-free or less smoky areas or times of day.
- Encourage frequent breaks where the air is clean, especially during periods with high AQI levels.
- Provide workers with N95s or other half-face or full-face respirators. OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard requires workers to be trained, medically evaluated and fit-tested before using respiratory equipment. When workers don’t meet these criteria, employers can still allow voluntary use of N95s by following Appendix D of the standard.
Step 3: Encourage Workers to Protect Themselves at Home
- Launder work clothes daily to remove particulate matter, which can infiltrate clothing and be inhaled by family members.
- Reschedule outdoor activities and strenuous activities to limit the amount of air inhaled.
- Close all doors and windows at home. Seal off doorways and drafty windows.
- Set central ducted A/C and heating systems to “on” rather than “auto” to ensure air is being filtered constantly.
- If the A/C system brings fresh air into the home, close the fresh-air intake so it operates in recirculation mode.
- Make a clean air room consisting of a portable air cleaner and clean HVAC filters. You can also make a DIY air cleaner using a 20” X 20” box fan and air filter. Use a damp cloth to clean up any dust particles that may enter.
- To increase HVAC filtration, choose a high-efficiency filter with a MERV 13 rating, or as high a rating as your system fan and filter slot can accommodate.
- While driving, keep all windows closed and turn air conditioning to the recirculate setting. In high exposure areas, wear N95s and stay in the vehicle as much as possible.
Step 4: Seek Out Additional Resources
For more information about preventing worker exposures, visit NIOSH’s Outdoor Workers Exposed to Wildfire Smoke page. LIUNA District Councils, Local Unions, signatory contractors and other affiliates can also order the LHSFNA’s Protecting Workers from Wildfire Smoke fact sheet or Wildfire Smoke Toolbox Talk.