State releases new wildfire smoke regulations to protect outdoor workers

By Daisy Zavala

The Seattle Times

As wildfire conditions worsen in Washington, officials adopted emergency rules Friday to protect outdoor workers from the dangers of smoke exposure.

The new measures released by the state Department of Labor and Industries require employers to provide workers spaces where air is properly filtered, rest breaks and work schedule changes when the Air Quality Index set by the Environment Protection Agency reaches 151.

At this level, employers are also required to monitor air quality, notify employees of exposure hazards and provide respiratory protective masks and training on smoke exposure health hazards.

“While wildfire smoke events affect whole regions … workers in outdoor environments are particularly at risk,” said Dina Lorraine, a spokesperson for L&I.

Workers tend to have higher respiratory rates leading them to inhale more smoke than someone who is at a resting heartbeat, she said.

Washington is just the second state to issue regulations regarding workers and wildfire smoke. California adopted similar measures in 2019.

Employers are encouraged to follow the emergency rules when AQI levels fall under 151. Though the new protections are in immediate effect, employers will be given a seven-day grace period before enforcement begins. Trainings are required by Aug. 2.

Erik Nicholson, former vice president of the United Farm Workers, said the protections don’t go far enough as wildfire smoke is harmful to workers at levels lower than the 151 AQI threshold set by L&I. Encouraging employers to act at levels that fall below that, instead of requiring them, fails workers, he said.

“It’s absolutely meaningless,” Nicholson said. “We’ve seen too many times in agriculture where growers don’t provide workers with the safety and the protection they need.”

The regulations come as have burned through at least 140,000 acres, some near agricultural communities including the Red Apple fire near Wenatchee. And earlier this month, the state released an emergency rule to provide farmworkers and other outdoor workers with additional protection from heat-related illnesses.

There is currently no rule that requires employees to stop work for the day when smoke levels reach a certain level. Farmworker advocates say they remain concerned and are left wondering if workers will continue to toil in undesirable and dangerous conditions like they did last year.

“Farmworkers and other ‘essential’ workers are a human shield, protecting white-collar America from the immediate dangers of deadly heat and toxic smoke-filled air,” said Elizabeth Strater, UFW director of strategic campaigns.

Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington Tree Fruit Association, said the new rules are already being addressed by most growers in their workplace safety plans. He said the group is pleased that the regulations follow the same standard as California, creating consistency.

Growers aren’t necessarily thrilled when steps are taken on an emergency basis because they need time to prepare and many are in the midst of harvest season, DeVaney said.

In past years, farmworkers across the West have labored through dense smoke deemed unhealthy by the EPA. The Yakima-Herald reported last year that UFW and the UFW Foundation sent a letter to the state calling for wildfire safety rules after seeing hundreds of workers out in the fields without respirator masks as AQI levels reached 151, 300 and higher.

Strater said it’s frustrating to see the state wait for an “absolute hellscape” before protecting workers when that’s not the case in many other industries where the approach is more proactive.

Last wildfire season, a group of temporary agriculture workers working under an H-2A visa were evacuated from the smoke and bussed to a park in Brewster, where they spent the night without blankets. The new emergency rules don’t provide provisions for H2A worker housing as they are specific to outdoor work settings, Lorraine said.

Exposure to smoke can result in a host of health issues that range from dry eyes, scratchy throats, headaches, heart attacks, long-term health issues and in the most severe cases even death, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. The department encourages people with underlying health conditions to limit outdoor activities when AQI levels are at 51.

Air quality levels at 101 begin to be unhealthy for people who are pregnant, suffer from a cold or flu, or have underlying health conditions like asthma or diabetes. Children and people over 65 are also at risk.

Strater said she and UFW volunteer teams have seen children under 12 in fields across the state working at night or through the heat. Economic desperation and lack of child care during night shifts can force people to bring their children with them to the fields, she said.

When AQI levels reach 151, the Department of Ecology recommends that everyone limits time spent outdoors and avoid any strenuous activity, and at-risk people should not be outside at all. Levels at 201 begin to be very unhealthy for people and hazardous at 301 up to 500.

“At that point, it’s visibly poison, and to have no ceiling where workers are protected from this — that’s discouraging and dangerous,” Strater said.