California is currently experiencing record-breaking heat waves and an increased number of active wildfire incidents.  California OSHA (CAL OSHA) has determined that this poses a serious threat to the safety of outdoor workers because smoke from wildfires often contains chemicals, gases, and fine particles that are dangerous to human health.  Inhaling such particles is particularly dangerous, says CAL OSHA, because it can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing.

In response to these concerns, CAL/OSHA recently issued an advisory notice that urges employers with employees  exposed to wildfire smoke to take extra precautions as part of their Injury and Illness Prevention Program under Title 8 section 3203 of the California Code of Regulations and as required under section 5141 (Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees).  Those precautions include:

  • Utilizing engineering controls whenever feasible (for example, using a filtered ventilation system in indoor work areas).
  • Using administrative controls if practicable (for example, limiting the time that employees work outdoors).
  • Providing workers with respiratory protective equipment (such as disposable filtering face-pieces, like dust masks) in conformance with respiratory protection requirements, as applicable. Some relevant respirator comments made by CAL OSHA in recent guidance include:
    • Respirators must be labeled N-95, N-99, N-100, R-95, P-95, P-99, or P-100, and must be labeled approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH).
    • Approved respiratory protective equipment is necessary for employees working in outdoor locations designated by local air quality management districts as “Unhealthy,” “Very Unhealthy,” or “Hazardous.”
    • Because it takes more effort to breathe through a respirator, workers wearing respirators are at an increased risk of heat stress. Frequent breaks are advised.  Workers feeling dizzy, faint, or nauseated are advised to go to a clean area, remove the respirator, and seek medical attention.
    • Respirators should be discarded if they become difficult to breathe through or if the inside becomes dirty. A new respirator should be used each day.

CAL/OSHA’s website provides additional Information for employers and workers regarding working safely in conditions with heavy smoke from wildfires, including frequently asked questions about N95 masks.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP has a team of knowledgeable lawyers and other professionals prepared to help employers assess their obligations. If you or your organization would like more information on OSHA and safe working conditions, please contact an attorney in the Employment and Labor practice group.