Question: Our company is located in an area that has been recently inundated with wildfire smoke. What are some things we can do to help ensure our employees are taking their safety and health into consideration while performing their work activities?
Answer: As an employer, you’re required to ensure the health and safety of employees performing work activities under your supervision. One resource to assess air quality in your area is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency AirNow website. The wildfire smoke may not directly affect your employees working indoors (in filtered air), but you may still have activities that need be done outdoors, or your employees may travel through wildfire smoke to and from the workplace. We’ve developed a new Model Policy, Wildfire Smoke Program as a template to help you follow best practices with protecting employees during wildfire smoke activity in your area. If your workplace is in California, you must comply with specific regulations to protect workers from hazardous air quality, as explained on Cal/OSHA’s wildfire smoke webpage.
Employees working outdoors in the heat are at greatest risk. If this work can be postponed until the air quality levels have decreased to safer levels before returning outdoors, that is the most ideal. Also, can these activities be rotated to allow your employees to work indoors in filtered air until air quality returns to safer levels? If not, and if your employees must be exposed to harmful wildfire smoke, you should provide N95 filtering respirators for your employees. Although many employees are currently wearing cloth face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus), those face coverings don’t protect against wildfire smoke particles. To help your employees understand the proper way to put on, wear, and remove an N95 mask, check out the illustrations available from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Also see our Model Form, Respirator Inspection Checklist and Model Policy, Respiratory Protection Program. Contact your Vigilant safety professional for guidance.
Beyond the health and safety of your employees related to wildfire smoke, recognize that some may have had to evacuate or know someone who is displaced or adversely affected by the wildfire activity and smoke in their area. If so, do what you can to be patient and understanding during these difficult times. If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), remind employees of that resource. Numerous organizations have set up funds to financially assist families affected by the fires. If you or your employees are looking for places to donate, you may want to review the lists of reputable charities providing assistance related to recent wildfires in California and the Pacific Northwest on sites such as CharityWatch, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and Charity Navigator.