As wildfire season approaches, it’s important to understand your obligations if employees want to wear dust masks to try to protect themselves from smoke in the air. Wildfire smoke is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and other plant material. Smoke can irritate workers’ eyes and respiratory systems, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases. If you or your employees are concerned with smoke in the workplace, here are some tips to reduce wildfire smoke at work:
Take outside work indoors.
Keep indoor air as clean as possible – consider using portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) air purifiers and if feasible, install HEPA filters in the existing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
Other options include alternate work assignments or relocation of those tasks, or telecommuting for those who work in office spaces.
If the smoke has infiltrated the workplace, you may provide respiratory protection on a voluntary basis if the smoke exposure isn’t likely to exceed occupational exposure limits. Disposable respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that are marked N95 or N100 will offer the best protection against the particulates in wildfire smoke. Unfortunately, these respirators don’t offer protection against the gases or vapors contained in smoke.
If you nonetheless provide N95 or N100 disposable respirators for voluntary use, you will need to first ensure that respirator use doesn’t create hazards for the users or interfere with an employee’s ability to work safely. After you’ve made that determination, you should train workers on safe respirator use and care according to the manufacturer’s instructions. You must also provide to each worker an official government disclosure. Federal OSHA (which covers Idaho and Montana), Cal/OSHA, and Oregon OSHA all use the same language from “Appendix D” of OSHA’s respiratory protection regulations at 29 CFR 1910.134. Washington has its own unique disclosure which is in Table 2 of its respiratory protection regulations at WAC 296-842-11005. Documenting the training is recommended but not required. Vigilant members, talk to your Vigilant safety professional if you have questions or need assistance. Also see our Model Form, Respirators: Requirements for Voluntary Use, which contains the required disclosures.