The state Department of Labor & Industries filed emergency rules Friday to protect workers exposed to wildfire smoke.
The emergency rules come as Washington is under a state of emergency due to wildfire danger. There have already been 600 wildfires reported in the state this year, L&I said in its news release.
Wildfire smoke contains chemicals, gasses and fine particles that can harm health, L&I said in the release. The main concern is over particulate matter, or PM, namely any particle smaller than than 2.5 micrometers. They can get deep into people’s lungs and worsen health conditions such as asthma. In addition, they negatively impact heart health and increase the risk of death.
“This wildfire season is shaping up to be even worse than last year,” said L&I director Joel Sacks. “We’re establishing emergency rules to protect employees who have to work outside, breathing in smoky air all day long.”
Employers are required to train workers on wildfire smoke exposure risks and safety procedures when PM exceeds 20.5 micrograms per cubic meter. That is the equivalent of 101 on the WAQA and 69 on AQI.
At dangerously poor air quality levels, when AQI or WAQA is over 151 or 173, respectively, employers must adopt measures to eliminate or reduce worker exposure. Those measures include providing respirators, such as N-95 or KN-95 masks, free of charge; moving employees to areas of lower exposure; and providing additional rest periods.
The rules go into effect immediately, but employers have a brief grace period before enforcement starts.
The new rules apply to any workplace where employees are exposed to wildfire smoke. Several workplaces are exempt, including those in enclosed buildings and structures, enclosed vehicles where the cabin air is filtered or where exposure is limited to one hour less during a shift. The rules also do not apply to firefighters responding to wildfires.
The rules were developed based on those adopted by California in 2019, as well as stakeholder feedback. The agency plans on providing opportunities for additional public input as it starts the permeant rulemaking process.
Worker safety has been a growing concern as wildfires have caused prolonged periods of hazardous air quality. Last year, the United Farm Workers and UFW Foundation sent a request to L&I asking for new rules to protect agricultural workers from smoke during wildfire season.