CSAC Bulletin Article

Smoke Regulations for Outdoor Workers Amended

August 22, 2019

Over the past several years, California has struggled with both preparing for and responding to hundreds of devastating wildfires. The 2018 fires alone caused billions in property damage and over a hundred fatalities. Even communities not physically damaged by the wildfires experienced poor and smoky air quality.

Following the fires of 2018, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board (Cal/OSHA) adopted emergency regulations intended to protect employees from exposure to unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke. In addition to protecting outdoor workers, these regulations, which expire in January of 2020, provide employers with specificity as to when additional protections are recommended or required.

Earlier this month, a significantly amended version of those emergency regulations was released by Cal/OSHA, to be considered for adoption to become permanent statewide standards. The most substantial proposed amendments lower the Air Quality Index (AQI) thresholds that trigger requirements for employers, as per the following:

  1. When air quality is in the range designated as “unhealthy for sensitive groups” (AQI of 100-151), employers would need to inform employees of that fact and provide respirators upon request to any employee who spends at least one hour of their work period outside or exposed to outdoor air. The current emergency regulations require this at an AQI of 151 instead of 100.
  2. When air quality is between 151 and 300 (“unhealthy” and “very unhealthy”) employers would be required to provide a sufficient number of respirators to all employees for voluntary use and encourage their use, as well as allowing access to medical treatment.
  3. When an AQI reaches 300, respirator use would be required under the proposed permanent regulations. The current emergency regulations put this threshold at 500.

Certain exceptions apply to all of these requirements, so interested county officials should check the draft regulations on the Department of Industrial Relation’s website. County officials in fire-prone areas might also review all of the information provided by Cal/OSHA’s website about worker safety and health in wildfire regions.

Concerns have been raised that the newly revised regulations are not sufficiently specific as to what employers are required to do during wildfire events, potentially resulting in confusion on behalf of both employers and employees.

Cal/OSHA will be convening an advisory meeting seeking input on the proposed permanent wildfire smoke regulations on Tuesday, August 27th, 2019, in Oakland. Please review this meeting agenda for more detailed information.

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