June 15, 2023

Amid Wildfire Smoke Event, Department of Labor Urges Employers to Protect Workers

On June 9, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a news release urging employers to make and implement plans to protect workers from hazardous air quality caused by wildfire smoke. The most significant health hazard associated with wildfire smoke, DOL explained, is exposure to particles of burned material less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These particles may enter the lungs and bloodstream and are linked with serious lung, heart, and kidney disease. Workers exposed to air polluted by wildfire smoke may also experience heat stress and eye or respiratory tract irritation or be exposed to other respiratory hazards in the atmosphere, such as heavy metals.

Measures to reduce outdoor workers’ smoke exposure include monitoring air quality conditions, such as by using EPA’s AirNow website and app, relocating or rescheduling work tasks to smoke-free areas, reducing physical activity, and requiring or encouraging workers to take breaks in smoke-free areas. Employers may also consider making accommodations to allow employees to work indoors with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. They may also provide or allow employees to use NIOSH-approved respirators in situations where they wouldn’t otherwise be required. The DOL’s news release also directed employers to OSHA's safety tips for protecting workers during wildfires and to NIOSH's resources for reducing outdoor workers’ exposure to smoke.

“Wildfire smoke exposure can create major health hazards for outdoor workers,” said Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker. “These hazards can be reduced with knowledge, safe work practices, and appropriate personal protective equipment.”

Throughout the week prior to DOL’s news release, large areas of the northeastern United States were affected by dangerous air pollution produced by wildfires burning across the border in Canada. According to Nature magazine, much of Canada has experienced an unusually warm and dry spring, resulting in an unprecedented early and active start to the fire season. By early June, the area of land burnt by wildfires in 2023 had already surpassed the area burnt by the end of the 2021 fire season, which was also unusually extreme. If dry, warm weather persists, the fires may continue for months, Nature reported.

As of June 14, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center listed a total of 457 active wildfires within the country. Of these fires, 231 were reported as “out of control,” with a further 131 “under control” and 91 “being held.” Additional information about the status of Canadian wildfires and response efforts, including national fire situation reports released daily, can be found on CIFFC’s website.

Related: The Synergist archives include articles on wildland firefighting, the analysis of wildfire and structure fire combustion residues, postfire assessments of the indoor environment, and assessing the potential health risks of wildfire residues in the indoor environment.