Keenan Blog

Occupational Exposure to Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19 Risks

June 08, 2021
  • Conditions wildland firefighters encounter could put them at greater risk for transmission of infectious diseases, including COVID-19
  • Breathing the small particles in wildfire smoke, known as Particulate Matter (PM), is a significant hazard
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) produced an infographic illustrating measures that wildland firefighters can take to reduce their COVID-19 risks

Occupational Exposure to Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19 Risks

The last several years have been marked by the unprecedented frequency and extent of wildfires in California and other regions of the country. The individuals who work at the front lines of these disasters are a rare breed who regularly face unimaginable conditions to reduce wildland damage and keep others safe. While repelling the powerful forces of wind-driven flames, wildland fire fighters do their strenuous jobs in an atmosphere filled with acrid smoke.

A recent review by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has identified that conditions wildland firefighters encounter could put them at greater risk for transmission of infectious diseases, including COVID-19. The factors influencing the higher risks include:

  • Living and working in close quarters with others
  • Limited access to hygiene supplies in remote fire camps
  • Extensive travel to respond to incidents around the state and country
  • Arduous work for long hours in hazardous conditions

Breathing the very small particles in wildfire smoke, known as Particulate Matter (PM), is a significant hazard because the tiny airborne particles reach the deepest parts of the lungs. At that point, it is very difficult to clear out such particles. Evidence for the connection between smoke inhalation and lower respiratory disease is considerable. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, preliminary studies have found a positive association between COVID-19 infection and PM exposure. While more investigation is necessary, one theory is that viral clusters stick to PM and are breathed deeply into the lungs. This potentially results in increased transmission of the disease and causing changes to the body’s immune response that leads to more severe illness and mortality.

Firefighters may encounter the greatest risks from PM, but it is not the only occupation that can be affected by PM during wildfires and greater COVID-19 exposures. Anyone who works outdoors and must be in close contact with others during that activity could risk a higher chance of contracting COVID-19. Although outdoor infections have been rare and more people are now vaccinated, the NIOSH review suggests smoky air increases transmission of the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) produced an infographic illustrating measures that wildland firefighters can take to reduce their COVID-19 risks while responding to wildfire incidents. The mitigation strategies can also be applied to workers in other occupations that are exposed to elevated PM while working outdoors and in groups. You will probably recognize most of these steps as mirroring the public health measures in place throughout the pandemic.

blog_covid-firefighter_cdc.jpg

Please refer to our earlier blog piece, “WhereThere’s Wildfire, There’s Smoke” for additional information about wildfiresmoke hazards, responding to outdoor workplace air quality, and the impact ofsmoke for the general public.


About Trina Caton
Trina Caton is Assistant Vice President in Keenan’s Loss Control Department and is based in our Rancho Cordova office. Trina currently directs and oversees Loss Control internal operations/resources of the department statewide. In this capacity, she is able to assess department and client needs and create, develop and retool the programs and products offered to ensure clients receive high quality products and services.  Trina has provided loss control/risk management services for Keenan clients since 1993.  She has a thorough knowledge of occupational and environmental regulations and is dedicated to making workplaces safer.