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Jul 19, 2021

WASHINGTON ALERT: Wildfire smoke regs issued, effective immediately

Safety and Health 

Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) issued emergency regulations on July 16, 2021, requiring employers to protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke. The rules took effect immediately, but enforcement of new obligations to implement exposure controls and provide respiratory protection is delayed until July 23, 2021. Enforcement of training requirements is delayed until August 2, 2021. Here are the key provisions.

Action levels: Washington’s rule sets two action levels based on the outdoor air concentration of Particulate Matter measuring 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5). The first action level occurs when the Air Quality Index (AQI) is 69 or higher (equivalent to a Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA) level of 101 or a PM2.5 concentration of 20.5 micrograms per cubic meter). The second action level occurs when the AQI is 151 or higher (equivalent to a WAQA level of 173 or a PM2.5 concentration of 55.5 micrograms per cubic meter).

Exemptions: The rule doesn’t apply to: (1) enclosed buildings in which you ensure that all exterior openings are kept closed except when people need to enter or exit; (2) enclosed vehicles in which the air is filtered and all windows, doors, and other openings are kept closed except when people need to open doors to enter or exit; (3) employees exposed to an AQI of 69 or higher for one hour or less during a shift; or (4) wildland firefighting crews (because they’re subject to different regulations).

Identifying exposure: Before each shift and periodically thereafter (the rule doesn’t specify how often, but says “as needed”), you must determine employees’ exposure to PM2.5. You have the option to measure the level yourself, or to access publicly available data. The rule offers numerous ideas for locating data, including several websites (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) AirNow, EPA, U.S. Forest Service AirFire, Washington Air Monitoring Network, and Washington Smoke Information) and two free mobile apps (EPA AirNow and AirQualityWA).

Hazard communication: For any worksites covered by the rule, you must have a system to notify affected employees of wildfire smoke hazards. This system must include effective procedures to inform employees when the AQI is 151 or higher and let them know of available protective measures to reduce their exposure. Your system must encourage employees to inform you of worsening air quality as well as any symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure such as asthma attacks, difficulty breathing, or chest pain. You must include wildfire smoke in your written accident prevention program, which must at a minimum include the information in the new regulations at WAC 296-62-08590 (also known as Appendix B in the wildfire smoke regulations). See our newly updated Model Policy, Wildfire Smoke Program, and customize it to your worksite.

Training requirements for workers: You must train affected workers before they encounter wildfire smoke that exposes them to an AQI of 69 or higher, and at least annually after that. The information must be provided in a manner and language that workers will readily understand. At a minimum, the training must include the information from WAC 296-62-08590 (Appendix B).

Training requirements for supervisors: In addition to receiving the general training for all workers, supervisors must receive special instructions. You must provide this special training before they supervise employees whose work exposes them to an AQI of 69 or higher. You must train supervisors on procedures for: (1) ensuring compliance with the wildfire smoke regulations; (2) taking action if an employee shows adverse symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure, including activating emergency response protocols; and (3) moving or transporting employees to an emergency medical services provider, if needed.

Responding to symptoms: If employees display adverse symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure, you must monitor them to determine whether they need medical attention. You must allow anyone showing signs of injury or illness due to wildfire smoke exposure to seek medical treatment without any negative employment consequences. You must also establish procedures ahead of time to ensure prompt medical treatment in the event of serious injury or illness.

Exposure controls: When the AQI is 69 or higher, L&I encourages you to implement exposure controls. When the AQI is 151 or higher, L&I requires you to implement exposure controls whenever feasible. Suggestions include providing access to buildings or vehicles where the air is filtered; providing portable high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in enclosed areas; relocating work; changing work schedules; reducing work intensity; and providing additional rest periods.

Respiratory protection: When the AQI is 69 or higher, L&I encourages you to provide free respirators to employees upon request, for voluntary use, or to allow workers voluntarily to provide and wear their own respirators. When the AQI is 151 or higher, L&I requires you to offer free respirators and encourage all employees to use them voluntarily. The respirators must be NIOSH-approved devices, such as N95 filtering facepiece respirators. (NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.) However, since N95s may be in short supply due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, you’re allowed during the 2021 wildfire season to instead provide KN95 filtering facepiece respirators (which are approved in some countries, but haven’t been approved by NIOSH). You must ensure any respirators in use are cleaned, stored, maintained, and replaced so they don’t present a health hazard themselves. Instead of the usual Washington-mandated notice to workers who wear a respirator for voluntary use, you must use WAC 296-62-08590 (Appendix B) when the respiratory hazard is wildfire smoke.

Tips: No matter how bad the outdoor air quality gets, Washington’s wildfire smoke rule doesn’t ever say that you must require the use of respirators. If you choose to mandate them, you’ll need to establish a respiratory protection program. See our Model Policy, Respiratory Protection Program. Questions? Contact your Vigilant safety professional.

This website presents general information in nontechnical language. This information is not legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific management decision, consult legal counsel.