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COVID-19 and Wildfire Smoke Safety
September 14, 2020

This wildfire season will be especially challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is concern about the health impacts of wildfire smoke overlapping with COVID-19 because both impacts respiratory and immune systems. COVID-19 restrictions limit how we can reduce our exposure to wildfire smoke.

If you have COVID-19, breathing in wildfire smoke may make your symptoms worse. Wildfire smoke can also make you more susceptible to respiratory infections, like COVID-19. Some symptoms, including cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing, are common to wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19.


Employee Health and Smoke

Wildfire smoke contains many hazardous chemicals that can:

  • Irritate the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Cause wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, headache, and worsen allergies
  • Aggravate existing lung, heart, and circulatory conditions, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and angina

Different people will experience various symptoms, depending on:

  • The amount of smoke in the air
  • How long the person stays in a smoky area
  • The physical demands of work; for example, high exertion can increase the amount of smoky air breathed in by as much as 20 times

In addition, employees may be at increased risk for symptoms if they:

  • Have preexisting heart or lung disease. For example, someone with heart disease and high blood pressure might experience chest pain, heart attack, or heart failure.
  • They may need relief through cleaner air, medication, and or emergency care
  • Are 65 and older
  • Perform physically hazardous tasks, such as working on ladders or operating heavy machinery. While the tasks may seem routine, smoky conditions can affect breathing, visibility, temperatures, and other factors that can make it harder to work safely
  • Work alone or in remote locations. Workers far from emergency medical aid or without nearby co-workers need reliable communication and emergency plans

 

Staying Informed About Air Quality

As air quality worsens, the risk for employee symptoms can increase.

Staying informed about changes in air quality can help employers anticipate possible impacts on their employees. A variety of resources are available to help, such as the Washington Smoke Information blog, which provides smoke forecasts and "real-time" air quality ratings (i.e., see the Air Quality Index map for Washington State).

The Air Quality Index (AQI) map indicates when the outdoor air quality as "unhealthy," "very unhealthy," or "hazardous." These ratings signal when healthy workers may begin to experience adverse symptoms.

Additional factors to consider when determining if the outdoor air is harmful include: how long workers are outside, the level of physical exertion, symptoms consistent with wildfire smoke exposure, and preexisting medical conditions.

The Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA) also provides useful air quality information. Also, be sure to check your local news sources.

Protecting outdoor workers when outdoor air quality is considered unhealthy or hazardous is a top concern. An excellent way to minimize health risks is to reduce exposure to smoky conditions. To the extent practical, consider the following best practices:

  • Relocate work to less smoky areas
  • Reschedule work until the air quality improves
  • Reduce the level or duration of work that is physically demanding
  • Provide enclosed structures or rooms that supply filtered air
  • Provide vehicles equipped with air conditioning; in poor air quality, employees should operate the air conditioning in "recirculate" mode and keep vents and windows closed

 

Protecting indoor workers

Wildfire smoke can also be harmful to indoor workers. The following steps can improve indoor air quality:

  • Ensure the HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system is working correctly and that air filters are clean and properly seated
  • Ask an HVAC technician for the highest filtration rating your HVAC system will support and use the highest rating possible when smoke is present. Filters with high filtration ratings require more frequent change-outs, but they can improve air quality
  • Consult with a qualified HVAC technician or ventilation engineer before reducing building air intake (i.e., outdoor air) to ensure the air pressure within the building remains slightly positive. If the indoor air pressure becomes lower than outdoor pressure, outdoor smoke will tend to get pulled into the building through the exhaust system and other openings
  • Portable HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) cleaners can improve air quality in small, walled spaces. Do not use ozone generators or personal air purifiers, electrostatic precipitators, and ionizers that produce ozone. Ozone is an irritant that worsens lung disease
  • Avoid additional sources for indoor pollutants; don't smoke, use candles or vacuum

 

Dust Masks

Workers may ask to voluntarily wear a non-NIOSH approved dust mask, such as a KN95 or hobby mask, when smoke from wildfires enters the work environment (use of NIOSH-approved N95s are temporarily discouraged due to the current shortage and need to reserve existing limited supplies for workers exposed to coronavirus in high-risk occupations like health care). Employers may permit voluntary use of other types of NIOSH-approved respirators, such as half-facepiece elastomeric respirators with HEPA cartridges, but would need to comply with medical evaluations and other applicable requirements in the Respirators rule Chapter 296-842 WAC.

Workers with breathing problems like asthma or COPD, or with chronic heart and lung disease should ask their doctor whether it's safe for them to voluntarily wear a dust mask or other type of protection at work. Dust masks restrict breathing and can put stress on the heart and lungs, which may worsen health symptoms.

Employers who require employees to wear a NIOSH-approved dust mask or other types of particulate respirator (e.g., a half-facepiece elastomeric respirator with HEPA cartridges) will need to follow medical evaluation, fit testing, and other respirator program requirements in the Respirators rule, Chapter 296-842 WAC. The use of N95s is temporarily discouraged for required use situations for the same reason given above for voluntary use.

Read Wildfire Smoke and Dust Masks at Work to learn about selecting and using dust masks.

 

Medical Evaluations and Wildfire Smoke

Workers who believe their health has been impacted by wildfire smoke should go to the emergency room or a health care provider of their choice for a medical evaluation and explain they were exposed to wildfire smoke at work. They should also file a claim and ask their health care provider to assist with that.

Instructions for filing a claim are available online here.

Those who work for self-insured employers should file claims directly with them.

For claims filed following exposure to wildfire smoke, L&I or the self-insured employer will evaluate the individual circumstances in each case to make a determination. The criteria for claim allowance depend on whether the medical condition is determined to be an occupational injury or an occupational disease. The self-insured employer or L&I can approve claims if the medical provider certifies that the worker was injured at a specific time and place at work, or has an occupational disease. Benefits cover medical bills and may also include replacement of lost wages, return-to-work help, and disability or a pension for the severely injured who cannot go back to work. Even if a claim is denied, the first doctor visit is paid by L&I or the self-insured employer.

Claims may be denied if the medical provider cannot certify the worker's medical condition is related to work. This legal standard frequently requires the claim manager to collect background information about the incident or exposure at work, and the worker's medical and job history.

 

Workers' Rights

Workers entitled to Washington State's paid sick leave protections may be entitled to use accrued paid sick leave to care for themselves or a family member whose health has been affected by exposure to wildfire smoke and high temperatures. Workers may also use accrued paid sick leave if a public official has shut down their child's school or place of care, or the employer's business or worksite for health reasons related to wildfire smoke and high temperatures.

Employers may not discipline or retaliate against employees who lawfully use accrued paid sick leave. This includes employers adopting or enforcing any policy that counts the use of accrued paid sick leave as an absence against the employee that may result in discipline.

Workers can file safety, wage, hour, and leave complaints by contacting any L&I office, or by calling 1-800-423-7233.

If you're a participant of R.O.I.I.® Select and want more information on how you can help keep your employees safe on the jobsite, contact R.O.I.I.® Select Safety Director Bob White at (360) 352-7800, ext. 109 or bobw@biaw.com.

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