Rule to Protect Californians from Smoky Air from Wildfires

California employers are now required to protect all workers — except for those in closed buildings with filtered air — from wildfire smoke whenever the air is officially deemed unhealthy to breathe.

by Guy Kovner, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. / July 31, 2019
Smoke fills the sky as the Camp Fire burned along the North Fork of the Feather River on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018. TNS

(TNS) — Droves of Sonoma County residents wore white respirator masks over their faces last November as noxious smoke from the Camp fire 100 miles to the north cast a dark pall over the Bay Area, creating the foulest air ever recorded in the region.

As a direct result of that pollution, California employers are now required to protect all workers — except for those in closed buildings with filtered air — from wildfire smoke whenever the air is officially deemed unhealthy to breathe.

The emergency regulation, rushed into effect Monday, gives employers three choices: relocate workers to an area with cleaner air; move them into enclosed buildings or vehicles; or provide them with respirators, such as the N95 masks popular last year, for voluntary use.

“We want to make sure we have protections in place for the wildfire season,” said Erica Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Industrial Relations, noting that new work safety rules often take a year or more to establish.

Steve Dutton, a west Sonoma County grape grower, said he was fully supportive of the new rule.

While most farm work can’t be moved inside and workers often can’t be moved away from smoky air, Dutton said he offered N95 masks to all of his employees in 2018 and during the October 2017 North Bay wildfires.

“That’s what we do for sure,” said Dutton, who is president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “It totally makes sense.”

The 11-page rule, adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, came in response to a petition submitted in December by labor advocates who said California’s catastrophic wildfires in 2018 and other recent years “demonstrate the need for protection for workers” whose jobs expose them to unhealthy air.

The petition called for protection of workers in agriculture, construction, landscaping, maintenance and commercial delivery, as well as those involved in evacuations, such as nurses and educators, but the rule applies to all work performed in smoke-fouled air, including open shops or buildings.

An air quality index of 151, defined as unhealthy — meaning everyone may begin to experience adverse health effects — triggers the mandates. Last November, the index indicated unhealthy air for 12 straight days over the North Bay and sometimes far beyond in California.

Employers are required to track the index, calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency and posted online at airnow.gov, which measures fine particles, the primary pollutant in wildfire smoke, as well as ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide and other chemicals.

The California Labor Federation, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and Worksafe, a nonprofit dedicated to worker well-being, petitioned for the new rule.

On Tuesday, most of California, including Santa Rosa, was expected to have good or moderate air quality under 100, except for the greater Los Angeles area, where many communities had forecasts well above 100 and four were over 151.

Smoke from the deadly Camp fire impacted 8 million people in 20 counties, and John Balmes, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said it posed a formidable health threat, “pretty much like cigarette smoke, minus the nicotine.”

In November, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said the air all the way to Butte County was among the most polluted in the world and the worst recorded in the Bay Area in more than 20 years of measurements.

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©2019 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

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