January 11, 2024

Washington State Adopts Permanent Workplace Rules for Wildfire Smoke

New permanent rules requiring employers in Washington state to protect workers from wildfire smoke will become effective on Jan. 15. The new workplace safety and health rules address exposures to PM2.5, particles of burned material less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) says can increase the risk of health effects such as reduced lung function, aggravated asthma, and heart failure as well as the risk of early death. 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. L&I’s rulemaking adds agriculture-specific requirements to the existing Washington Administrative Code (WAC) chapter for safety standards in agriculture and creates a new chapter, Chapter 296-820 WAC, Wildfire Smoke, to address exposures for all other industries.

Under the new rules, covered employers must prepare a written wildfire smoke response plan, monitor PM2.5 conditions and forecasts, establish a two-way system to communicate changing wildfire smoke conditions to employees, and make provisions in advance for employees who display symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure to receive prompt medical attention without reprisal. The wildfire smoke rules call for employers to train workers on wildfire smoke before exposing them to PM2.5 concentrations of 20.5 µg/m3 or more and then to repeat training at least annually. An appendix in the rules includes a template for training and a sample wildfire smoke response plan.

As PM2.5 levels increase, L&I’s rules require additional protections. For example, when PM2.5 measures 35.5–250.4 µg/m3, covered employers must implement exposure controls and make N95 respirators available for voluntary use. At PM2.5 levels ranging from 500.4 to 554.9 µg/m3, employers are required to implement a respiratory protection program that requires the use of particulate respirators and includes fit-testing and medical evaluations. When PM2.5 measures 555 µg/m3 or greater, the rules state that employers must require respirators with an assigned protection factor of 25 or more.

The rules allow for employers to use the NowCast Air Quality Index (AQI) as provided by the Washington state department of ecology or EPA to approximate current PM2.5. The NowCast AQI covers both particle pollution and ozone.

More information about the new rules can be found on L&I’s webpage on the wildfire smoke rulemaking and on its topic page for wildfire smoke.