Rick Barton, CSP, ARM June 28, 2023 3 min read

DOL Urges Employers to Safeguard Outdoor Workers From Wildfire Smoke

Wildfires lead to the release of hazardous smoke and cause air pollution in certain parts of the United States. As a result, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) strongly advises employers to develop effective strategies to safeguard their employees from the risks associated with poor air quality caused by wildfire smoke.

To aid in this effort, OSHA offers a comprehensive website that equips employers with vital information, safety guidelines, and valuable resources to formulate hazard prevention plans. These plans aim to mitigate employee exposure to smoke during wildfires. OSHA emphasizes the importance of having a thorough plan in place.

The primary danger stemming from wildfire smoke lies in the exposure to particulate matter, according to OSHA. Such matter is minuscule particles, less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, produced through the incomplete combustion of organic matter. When inhaled, these particles can infiltrate the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, leading to severe health issues such as lung, heart and kidney diseases.

Individuals exposed to wildfire smoke may experience various symptoms, including heat stress, irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, and respiratory hazards caused by the release of harmful substances like heavy metals into the atmosphere. To mitigate these risks, employers are strongly advised to proactively prepare and implement procedures that effectively minimize workers' exposure to smoke when necessary.

The following protective measures are recommended by the DOL to reduce smoke exposure risks for outdoor workers:

  • Regularly monitor air quality conditions using a reliable source such as the Environmental Protection Agency's AirNow platform.
  • Relocate or reschedule work tasks to areas unaffected by smoke.
  • Reduce levels of physical activity, particularly strenuous and heavy work.
  • Encourage workers to take breaks in smoke-free environments whenever possible.
  • Provide suitable accommodations for employees to work indoors with proper heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems and high-efficiency air filters, if feasible.
  • Allow or provide respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for voluntary use when they are not otherwise mandated. If respirators are allowed for voluntary use, employers must ensure that employees are provided with the necessary advisory information outlined in Appendix D of OSHA's Respirator Protection Standard.

Employers should implement these protective measures to significantly reduce their employees' exposure to hazardous wildfire smoke and prioritize their health and well-being.

Rick Barton, CSP, ARM

Rick has over 20 years of experience in safety and risk control, working with clients in many industries including Construction, Mining, Trucking, Manufacturing, and Hospitality. He specializes in assessing risk for the clients of Hausmann Group to reduce loss potential. Through safety assessments and loss analysis, Rick develops solutions which include safety management techniques, training, and engineering. Additionally, he has been asked to speak at local and national safety conferences on topics such as "How to Manage Safety on a Jobsite", and "What it takes to be a Safety Leader”. Rick is an Authorized Instructor of OSHA Regulations Construction and General Industry Regulations. He is an active member of the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association (WTBA), Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC), the Wisconsin chapter of The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), and the Association of General Contractors (AGC). He is also on the Advisory Board of the Safety Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater. Rick is an avid boater and enjoys sharing time on the water with family and friends. His children are spread across 4 U.S. states and Japan, so he and his wife are often traveling to visit them. He also has attended more than 150 games in the last 15 years to see his beloved Green Bay Packers play.