The Keenan Blog

Timely and informative posts written by our experts.


When Your Eyes Observe the Smokey Skies

August 18, 2022 by Keenan

Major wildfires have again erupted in several parts of California. In addition to the destruction for communities directly threatened, these large wildland fires are generating widespread smoke expected to affect air quality in many areas of the state. Cal/OSHA reminds employers that California’s protection from wildfire smoke standard requires them to take steps to protect their workers from unhealthy air due to wildfire smoke. Harmful air quality can occur anywhere in the state on short notice. While outdoor workers often face the greatest exposure to these air quality hazards, the general public is also impacted. Children, seniors and individuals with respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable.

When wildfire smoke might affect a worksite, employers must monitor the air quality index for PM2.5 before and throughout the work shift. There are many resources you can use to track the air quality index using websites like the U.S. EPA’s AirNow or local air quality management district websites. Employers can also use their own instruments to measure PM2.5 at a worksite under Cal/OSHA’s requirements.

If the air is unhealthy due to wildfire smoke, employers must provide proper respiratory protection like N95 respirators for voluntary use if work cannot be moved to a location where the air is not harmful. If employers cannot move operations to areas where air is adequately filtered and they do not have access to respiratory protection, they may need to halt operations until the outdoor air quality improves. This includes outdoor worksites and indoor locations where the air is not filtered or doors are kept open such as warehouses, packing, manufacturing, distribution facilities and more. 

Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases and fine particles that can harm health. The greatest hazard comes from breathing fine particles in the air (called PM2.5), which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma or other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

If the Air Quality Index (AQI) for PM2.5 is 151 or greater, employers must take these steps to protect employees:

  • Communication – Inform employees of the AQI for PM2.5 and the protective measures available to them.
  • Training and Instruction – Provide effective training and instruction to all employees on the hazards and personal protections against wildfire smoke.
  • Modifications – Implement modifications to the workplace, if feasible, to reduce exposure. Examples include providing enclosed structures or vehicles for employees to work in, where the air is filtered.
  • Changes – Implement practicable changes to work procedures or schedules, including changing the location where employees work or reducing the time they work outdoors or exposed to unfiltered outdoor air.
  • Respiratory Protection – Provide respiratory protection equipment approved by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), such as disposable respirators, for voluntary use. 

If the AQI for PM2.5 exceeds 500 due to wildfire smoke, respirator use is required. Employers must ensure employees use respirators and implement a respiratory protection program as required in California’s respiratory standard. For information or help on developing a respiratory protection program, contact your Keenan Loss Control Advisor and refer to Cal/OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Fact Sheet.

Wildfire smoke is more than just an occupational hazard. It affects us all even when we’re off the job. Even the healthiest among us experience eye irritation and scratchy throat when smoke fills the air. During wildfire smoke events, stay indoors, close windows and turn off evaporative coolers.

Check your local weather conditions to determine the visibility in your area. Then use the 5-3-1 Method for the steps you need to take and if it is safe to be outside. 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. Contact your physician if smoke aggravates any health conditions.



About Trina Caton 
Trina Caton is Assistant Vice President in AP 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. Trina has provided loss control/risk management services for AP Keenan clients since 1993. She has a thorough knowledge of occupational and environmental regulations and is dedicated to making workplaces safer.