Wildfires and Outdoor workforces

In recent years wildfires have become increasingly dangerous to our population and are making more of an impact on the insurance market. The wildfire season has been expanding rapidly, a season that was once primarily just the summer months has expanded to the spring and fall. The fires have become more intense and have started to affect areas far beyond where the fire is active. While health officials recommend people stay indoors when the air quality is poor, many outdoor workers do not have this luxury. Employers need to implement protections to protect their outdoor workforces and shield themselves from any future legal obligations. 

The US Department of Labor (DOL) is urging employers to protect their outdoor workers from wildfire smoke exposure. OSHA has determined that the most dangerous aspect of wildfire smoke is the particulate matter. These miniscule particles are produced through incomplete combustion of organic matter. When inhaled, they can infiltrate the lungs and blood stream which can lead to severe health issues such as lung and heart disease. 

Health impacts on workers:

Mild side effects:

  • Coughing / wheezing 
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Stinging eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Scratchy throat

Severe side effects:

  • Chest pain & heart failure
  • Reduced lung function
  • Bronchitis
  • Asthma attacks
  • Shortness of breath and trouble breathing

While there aren't specific regulations around this subject it is important to establish protocol for how your organization will handle these situations to protect your workers. As air quality issues develop and gain more attention over time, the likelihood of workers compensation claims or regulatory enforcement will grow. 

Determining the level of danger - Air Quality Index:

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is used to determine the level of air quality in your area. Numbers range from 0-500 with higher numbers representing the more dangerous conditions. The amount of wildfire smoke can change quickly depending on factors in the wildfire environment including weather, fire behavior and type of vegetation therefore making it important to check conditions regularly. 

The CDC's recommendations to reduce outdoor workers exposure:

"Employers should prepare and plan to implement procedures to reduce exposures to smoke when necessary" some options include:

  • Consistently monitor the air quality conditions in the area. Use the AQI map for specific locations
  • Provide N95 masks and respirators- this may be one of the easiest controls to implement
  • Relocate or reschedule work to smoke-free or less smokey areas
  • Consider operating at a different time of day when the air quality is better
  • Reduce level of physical activity when air quality is determined too poor for working conditions
  • Encourage workers to take breaks in places that are smoke free
  • Limit the worker's smoke exposure by making accommodations
  • For information on how to create an indoor environment that reduces exposure and protect the occupants employers and building manager should visit the CDC's website


As of right now, OSHA does not have federally mandated regulations or standards, however, citations could fall under the employer's general duty to provide safe working conditions and protection from known hazards. 

Currently, only a few of the Western states have regulations in place to protect their workers from wildfire smoke. These regulations started out temporary, but are becoming permanent standards and may provide some insight into what other states are likely to implement. Unfortunately, it is likely that there will be an increasing need for regulations. Your company should work with your broker to develop standards and protocol for how to address work in these conditions. 

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