Washington State Files Proposed Permanent Rule on Worker Protection from Wildfire Smoke Health Effects

Washington State Files Proposed Permanent Rule on Worker Protection from Wildfire Smoke

People can comment on the proposed rules until August 4, 2023.

A permanent rule on keeping workers safe from the effects of wildfire smoke exposure may soon be coming to Washington State.

On May 11, 2023, more than two years after the start of the rulemaking process, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) announced it had filed proposed permanent wildfire smoke rules, per a news release.

Though not much is known about the effects of wildfire smoke specifically on outdoor workers, people exposed to wildfire smoke may experience eye irritation, coughing, pneumonia, per NIOSH, or more severe side effects such as chest pain, heart attacks and lung complications, according to L&I.

The proposed permanent rule outlines necessary protections based on a tool the Environmental Protection Agency uses to measure air quality called Air Quality Index (AQI). Specifically, the proposed rule uses NowCast AQI, which shows the current AQI as opposed to the overall air quality over 24 hours.

According to the news release, under the proposed rule, if the NowCast AQI “for small particles of dangerous materials” is:

  • Equal to or greater than 69, required protections include
    • “Wildfire smoke response plan
    • Wildfire smoke safety training
    • Emergency response measures for workers experiencing wildfire smoke symptoms”
  • Equal to or greater than 101, required protections include
    • Provided respiratory protection
    • Optional respirator use
    • “Feasible wildfire smoke exposure controls”
  • Equal to or greater than 301, required protections include
    • Respiratory protection that must be “distributed to individual workers.”
    • In addition, “If workers experience wildfire smoke symptoms requiring medical attention, relocate them to a space with clean air.”
  • Equal to or greater than 500, required protections include
    • Respirator use for “affected workers.” The respirators must be at least N95.
    • “Full workplace respiratory protection program”
  • More than the AQI, “N95 is not sufficiently protective at this level; more protective respirators are required.”

The proposed rule also details specific requirements for employers, including keeping track of air quality, notifying workers if the air quality “exceeds certain exposure thresholds” and watching workers who have symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure “to determine if medical care is needed,” per L&I.

The public is welcome to comment on the proposed rule by mail, fax or email or during hearing sessions. One virtual hearing will be held along with six in-person hearings, which will take place in Spokane, Kennewick, Bellingham, Vancouver, Tukwila and Yakima. For dates and locations, visit L&I’s rulemaking activity page. Comments are due by August 4, 2023.

L&I started the rulemaking process for wildfire smoke rules back in 2020. Then in 2022, the agency filed emergency rules on wildfire smoke.

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