Guest blog by the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS)
Wildfires in California are increasing in frequency and severity and preparing for them on an annual basis is a new experience for most farmers. Unlike heat illness prevention and pesticide safety, there have been no well-established protocols to mitigate the occupational health and safety risks associated with wildfires.
In addition to the dangers of an active fire, wildfire smoke, ash, and chemicals used to treat fires negatively affect air quality. Farmers and farmworkers are at a greater risk for exposure due to their work outdoors and long shifts.
On December 13, 2018, after the Camp Fire became the deadliest and most costly wildfire in California history, blanketing Sacramento and much of the Central Valley in smoke, the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (OSHSB) received a joint submission from Mitch Steiger, California Labor Federation; Douglas Parker, Worksafe; and Anne Katten, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, seeking emergency regulatory protection of outdoor workers from the harmful effects of wildfire smoke.
After months of advisory meetings, regulation §5141.1 “Protection from Wildfire Smoke,” went into effect on July 29, 2019. The newly adopted regulation uses the local air quality index (AQI) for PM2.5 to determine when worker protections are needed and includes mandatory activities for employers of outdoor workers who “reasonably anticipate that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke”.
For example, employers must:
- Monitor the Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5
- Provide training to workers, including how to determine AQI, identify health effects of wildfire smoke exposure, and how to use NIOSH-approved respirators
- Establish worker protection procedures, including a plan to reduce worker exposure to wildfire smoke
- Communicate the above workplace procedures to staff and employees
The Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (WCAHS) at UC Davis has developed resources in English and Spanish, including an employer checklist, training poster, and accompanying discussion guide, to assist agricultural employers with meeting the requirements outlined in the newly adopted regulation and communicating the required topics to employees.
Access these resources: https://aghealth.ucdavis.edu/wildfires