United Farm Workers and the UFW Foundation have sent a request to the state Department of Labor & Industries for new rules to protect agricultural workers from smoke during wildfire season.

The request comes after the union and the foundation, a nonprofit that works to advocate for and support farmworkers, did an outreach blitz to farmworkers in the Yakima Valley and Tri-Cities areas in mid-September when the area was facing unhealthy and sometimes hazardous air quality conditions due to wildfires.

The organizations wrote in their letter that the “overwhelming majority” of the more than 600 workers they talked to were not wearing N-95 masks or other protective equipment. Farmworkers also reported health issues, including burning and itchy throats, eye irritation and headaches from working in smoky conditions.

Zaira Sanchez, emergency relief coordinator for the UFW Foundation, said the blitz included visits to nearly a dozen farms, mostly harvesting apples and other tree fruit.

The organizations wrote that during the outreach period, from Sept. 13-18, the region’s air quality conditions were unhealthy, at least 151 on EPA’s Air Quality Index, or AQI. There were two days where air quality was considered hazardous, which is when the AQI is 301 or higher.

Sanchez said many workers said they were given masks early in the COVID-19 pandemic but didn’t have new ones to protect themselves from smoky conditions. Sanchez said her organization distributed N-95 masks to workers during the outreach effort. In total, the foundation has distributed 1 million cloth and N-95 masks to farmworkers in Eastern Washington.

“We want employers to provide new masks regularly, not just once, and to provide the appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) in smoky conditions,” she said.

L&I has a guide for employers with best practices regarding mitigating issues from wildfires in outdoor and indoor settings. Recommendations for outdoor workers, which are not mandatory, include rescheduling work until air quality improves, relocating work to less smoky areas, and reducing the physical exertion involved with job tasks.

The agency also issued a hazard alert last week where it recommended that employers implement “voluntary use” of N-95 and KN-95 masks, if the Air Quality Index is between 151 and 499. It recommended required use if the AQI was at 500. N-95 and KN-95 masks filter out particulate matter better than cloth and surgical masks.

The response

In an emailed statement to the Yakima Herald-Republic, L&I said it received the letter from the UFW and the UFW Foundation and is considering beginning a rule-making process to address concerns around protecting workers from wildfire smoke.

“We are concerned about the health and safety of all workers, especially those who work outdoors in smoky conditions from wildfires. This includes agriculture workers,” the agency wrote in its statement.

Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said he’s talked to the UFW about this topic in general. He said growers used various methods, including providing masks or rescheduling work, to protect workers from hazardous conditions.

DeVaney said his organization distributed 200,000 KN-95 masks last month when air quality deteriorated. The masks came from the state for COVID-19 protection but the organization decided to use them to respond to the smoky conditions.

He said growers should protect workers from hazards such as smoke, but there are multiple ways to do so.

Many growers will opt to reschedule work, but there are times where it is not possible to delay the harvest of fruit.

What growers can do “can vary pretty significantly not just on the employer but the individual circumstances on a worksite,” he said.

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang