Where There’s Wildfire There’s Smoke

 Keenan Blog

Where There’s Wildfire There’s Smoke

September 03, 2020

This wildfire season is already an active one, with a lightning “siege” sparking blazes during August throughout California. The destructive fires have resulted in the loss of life and property, and are stretching the resources to fight them. As we progress into late summer and fall, the danger will continue. We urge everyone to take precautions and stay aware of weather conditions to prevent human-caused fires. This is also the time to ensure a defensible perimeter is maintained around your property and repairs are made to keep blowing embers from entering structures.

Whether wildfires are near or far, we are often forced to deal with the smoke that results from them. Wildfire smoke contains chemicals, gases and fine particles that can harm health. The greatest hazard comes from breathing fine particles in the air, which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

The smallest and usually the most harmful particulate matter is called PM2.5 (solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in air with an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller). Emergency regulations issued by Cal/OSHA entitled Protection from Wildfire Smoke, applies to workplaces and operations where the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5 particulate is 151 or greater ("unhealthy") and where the employer should reasonably anticipate that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke. Reference section 5141.1 for details on the scope and application of this regulation. Employers are required to determine employee exposure to PM2.5 for worksites covered by this section, before each shift and periodically thereafter as needed.

The regulation requires the following:

  • Identification of harmful exposures
  • Communication
  • Training and instruction
  • Control of harmful exposures
  • Specific particulate sampling requirements if an employer opts to monitor employee exposure with a direct reading instrument

For further details about this emergency regulation, see our recent Briefing. Additional information about employer requirements and resources for maintaining worker safety in wildfire smoke can be found on the Department of Industrial Relations web site at https://www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/worker-health-and-safety-in-wildfire-regions.html.

Of course, wildfire smoke is more than just an occupational hazard. It affects us all even when we’re off the job. The health effects from smoke are especially of concern to vulnerable individuals, including seniors and small children, and persons with respiratory conditions like asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Even the healthiest among us experience eye irritation and scratchy throat when smoke fills the air.

Steps to take during wildfire smoke events include staying indoors, closing windows and turning off evaporative coolers. Your eyes are your best tools to determine if it is safe to be outside. Use the 5-3-1 Method. If visibility is:

Under 5 miles, the air quality is unhealthy for young children, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and people with heart and/or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness. Outdoor activity should be minimized.

Around 3 miles, young children, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and people with heart and/or lung disease, asthma or other respiratory illness should avoid all outdoor activities.

Around 1 mile, the air quality is unhealthy for everyone. People should remain indoors and avoid all outdoor activities including running errands. Unless an evacuation order has been issued, stay inside your home, indoor workplace, or in a safe shelter.

Stay aware of the situation in your area; monitor fire weather reports from the National Weather Service and air quality advisories from your local authorities. Advance preparation and attention to fire safety can help all of us to be healthier during this upcoming season.

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.