Keenan Briefings


New Emergency Regulation: Employers Must Protect Workers From Wildfire Smoke

August 16, 2019

The widespread wildfires in California last fall generated enormous plumes of smoke into the air throughout the state. Even areas far removed from the flames experienced dense smoke. The Department of Industrial Relations’ (DIR) Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board has determined that the airborne smoke from wildfires poses a significant hazard to outdoor workers. On July 18, 2019, the Standards Board adopted an emergency regulation to protect workers from wildfire smoke hazards for this upcoming fire season.

Wildfire smoke contains very small particles – about 1/30th diameter of a human hair – that are easily inhaled into the deepest structures of the lungs. Once inhaled, most of these particles cannot be exhaled and remain in the lungs. There they cause damage to the tissues and blood vessels that exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. These tiny particles aggravate respiratory and other health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease and bronchitis. In the long term, the fine combustion products from such fires can result in future serious illness and disabilities.

The emergency regulation was approved by the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) on July 29, 2019. The new standard will be effective for one year and will be enforced by Cal/OSHA. The protective regulation applies when the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for airborne particulate matter 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) or smaller exceeds 150 in locations where employees could be exposed. (NOTE: a micron is one-millionth of a meter). Employers of outdoor workers are required to take specific steps under this regulation:

  • Identify harmful exposure to airborne particulate matter from wildfire smoke before each shift and periodically thereafter by checking the AQI for PM 2.5 in regions where workers are located.
  • Reduce harmful exposure to wildfire smoke if feasible, for example, by relocating work to an enclosed building with filtered air or to an outdoor location where the AQI for PM 2.5 is 150 or lower.
  • If employers cannot reduce workers’ harmful exposure to wildfire smoke so that the AQI for PM 2.5 is 150 or lower, they must provide:
    • Respirators, such as N95 masks, to all employees for voluntary use.
    • Training on the new regulation, the health effects of wildfire smoke, and the safe use and maintenance of respirators.

Detailed requirements, exemptions and exceptions regarding this emergency regulation are published in the California Code of Regulations, Title 8 section 5141.1.

Cal/OSHA has also been instructed to conduct a follow-up review of this regulation and to use the regular rulemaking process for adoption of a permanent regulation. An advisory committee will be established, and hearings will be announced regarding permanent adoption while the emergency regulation remains in effect. Meeting details and documents concerning this regulation will be posted on the Cal/OSHA web site.

Please contact your Keenan Account Manager, Claims Analyst or Risk Management Analyst if you would like more information on the regulation described in this Briefing.

Keenan & Associates is not a law firm and no opinion, suggestion, or recommendation of the firm or its employees shall constitute legal advice. Clients are advised to consult with their own attorney for a determination of their legal rights, responsibilities and liabilities, including the interpretation of any statute or regulation, or its application to the clients’ business activities.