Protecting Outdoor Workers from Wildfire smoke in California: Cal/OSHA Emergency Regulation

In this article we discuss the new emergency regulations from Cal/OSHA and provide context for these decisions and possible ramifications; including current AQIs, forecasts and protecting California Workers from Wildfire smoke.

Why is Wildfire Smoke an Issue?

Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals and fine particles that can harm a person’s health significantly. The greatest hazard comes from breathing fine particles in the air, which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

The smallest and usually the most harmful particulate matter is PM 2.5. This consists of solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in air with an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller.

Regulation Background and Impetus

The Division of Occupational Safety and Health in California (better known as Cal/OSHA) exists to help protect workers from health and safety hazards on the job in almost every workplace in California.

Cal/OSHA’s Emergency Regulation was approved by the Office of Administrative Law. It requires employers to protect workers from hazards associated with wildfire.

Cal/OSHA - Division of Occupational Safety and Health in California

On August 27th, 2019 Cal/OSHA convened an advisory committee to further discuss the rule. The Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board, a seven-member body appointed by the Governor, is the standards-setting agency within the Cal/OSHA program. The Standards Board’s objective is to adopt reasonable and enforceable standards at least as effective as federal standards. The Standards Board also has the responsibility to grant or deny applications for variances from adopted standards and respond to petitions for new or revised standards. Comments on the rule were accepted by Cal/OSHA until September 30th, 2019.

Emergency Regulation Section 5141.1: Protection from Wildfire Smoke is effective through January 28, 2020 with two possible 90-day extensions. It applies to workplaces where the current Air Quality Index (AQI) for airborne PM2.5 is 151 or greater (deemed an unhealthy level) and where the employer should reasonably anticipate that employees may be exposed to wildfire smoke. Reference section 5141.1 for details on the scope and application of this regulation.

Aeroqual Series 500 in California Wildfires 2017
US EPA truck Aeroqual Series 500s wildfires Southern California 2017

Employers responsibilities under the Emergency Regulation

Under the new Emergency Regulation, employers must take the following steps to protect workers who may be exposed to wildfire smoke:

  • Identify harmful exposure to airborne particulate matter from wildfire smoke at the start of each shift and periodically thereafter by checking the AQI for PM2.5 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 PM2.5 is 150 or lower.
  • If employers cannot reduce workers’ harmful exposure to wildfire smoke so that the AQI for PM2.5 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

Where can employers check current AQI and forecasts?

AirNow Website

Employers can check AQI forecasts and current AQI for PM 2.5 from the following web sources:

Employers can also find out the AQI by telephone, email and text directly from: EPA