By Benjamin D. BriggsAdam R. YoungPatrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: As Canadian wildfire smoke spreads across the Northern United States, employers should review the CDC/NIOSH guidance on occupational exposure to wildfire smoke and implement effective measures to protect employees. 

Canadian forests continue to burn, with about 3.8 million hectares (9.4 million acres) burned at the time of this writing, roughly 15 times the annual average.  At least 100 million Americans have been affected by air quality alerts from the wildfire smoke.  For instance, New York City continues to record unhealthy level AQIs across the region (currently 117-165 near Manhattan). 

Wildfire smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and particles. As a wildfire burns, different compounds are released in the smoke, such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter (PM), benzene, acrolein, and aldehydes.

Though many Western OSHA state plans enforce specific rules relating to wildfire smoke, federal OSHA has no regulations and has issued no guidance on how best to protect workers from this specific hazards.  Federal OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires employers to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause serious injury or death.  And the federal respiratory protection standards requires employers to protect employees from anticipated airborne hazards. According to the CDC, wildfire smoke has a “clear potential for such exposures to result in adverse health outcomes” including asthma exacerbations, bronchitis, and pneumonia.  Employers would be wise to take remedial action.  

NIOSH, a subagency under the CDC (and not part of OSHA), has advised employers to implement procedures to reduce exposures to smoke when necessary. If workers must work in areas with high levels of smoke, especially for long periods, or if a worker is sensitive to wildfire smoke and feels their health or safety is negatively impacted by smoke exposure, NIOSH suggests plans be implemented to reduce smoke exposure, including:

  • 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 workers to take frequent breaks in places that are free from smoke, and
  • Limit the worker’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, it is important that employers and building manager

In addition, a NIOSH Approved® respirator, such as a filtering facepiece respirator (FFR) N95® respirator, can be used to reduce exposure to airborne particulates from wildfire smoke when the recommendations listed above cannot be implemented and it is feasible to obtain respirators. Where there is no serious hazard, employers can offer employees the use of FFRs on a voluntary basis with only limited training (including Appendix D) and no other programs.  However, where the wildfire smoke is at sufficient level to create a serious hazard, the regulations require employers to mandate the use of respiratory protection.  Employers then must also implement a complex respiratory protection program with medical evaluations and fit tests for each employee who will use a respirator.  Federal OSHA has not dictated a standard for the AQI level where wildfire smoke becomes so unhealthy that employers should offer voluntary FFRs or must mandate the use of respirators. By comparison, Oregon regulations use AQI 101 as the threshold at which employers should offer FFRs on a voluntary basis, and AQI 251 as the threshold where employers must mandate the use of respirators for any outdoor work.

For more information on wildfire smoke, heat illness, or any other occupational safety and health topic, contact your Seyfarth Workplace Safety and Environmental attorney.