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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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New WA wildfire smoke rules for outdoors workers likely to take effect later this summer


YAKIMA — Washington could have new rules for outdoor workers and wildfire smoke by the end of summer.

The Department of Labor and Industries had a public hearing on its proposed wildfire smoke rules for outdoor workers in Yakima on Thursday, where the department took public comments and shared more information about the new regulations.

L&I staff members said they are trying to adopt and implement the new regulations later this summer. The agency did not provide an exact date.

Tracy West, standards program manager at L&I, oversaw the public hearing and provided some background for the proposed rules, which require employees to provide respirators and lessen smoke exposure at certain levels of air pollution.

She said L&I received a petition for new rules in September 2020 in response to historic wildfires that year. The department adopted emergency rules from July 2021 to June 2022.

L&I staff present on rules

The proposed rules would not apply to workers who are indoors, or in cars with the doors and windows shut, or firefighters. They focus on particulate matter 2.5, or PM2.5, said Kat Gregersen, industrial hygiene technical policy manager at L&I.

PM2.5 are particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers wide. A human hair is roughly 50-70 micrometers wide. Forest fires can be a source of PM2.5. Gregersen said such particles could cause health problems when they are breathed in and embed themselves deep in human lungs.

L&I’s rules set out certain amounts as thresholds for PM2.5 pollution in the air at a worksite and what employers must do when those thresholds are reached. Gregersen stressed that the rules apply to PM2.5, not the overall air quality index (AQI).

She said the AQI measures multiple pollutants, including PM2.5. L&I’s proposed rules would only apply to PM2.5.

“Sometimes the AQI is elevated and it’s not PM2.5, it’s something else,” Gregersen said.

She said that the EPA’s AirNow air quality map allowed let users look at the AQI for only PM2.5. Employers also have the option of using sensors on site that are approved by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Employers should use the closest sensor to the worksite, Gregersen said, when making decisions.

Public comments and reaction

Several business owners and advocates attended the Yakima hearing.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Growers League, a nonprofit that works with agriculture businesses and owners, requested clarification for language about the provision of masks. He also asked that L&I work with business owners to help find PM2.5 monitors.

“It’s not something we’re used to using,” he said.

After the meeting, Gempler added that the rules were important.

“Smoke is a tough situation. We understand. It can be hazardous,” he said.

He said that additional training could take a lot of time and be difficult to implement, often taking multiple hours and becoming repetitive as workers moved between employers in agriculture.

Marie Schurk, membership and programs manager at the Washington Wine Institute, echoed Gempler’s call for collaboration when it comes to monitoring instruments.

“(We) definitely encourage communicating with the agriculture industry,” Schurk said.

Forbes Mercy, who owns a local internet company, commented on new regulations more generally, pointing to the recently implemented heat rules for outdoor workers. He said costs for businesses were increasing due to the rules and asked that L&I pay more attention to comments in the public hearings. He called the rules anti-business.

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After L&I published the proposed rules in May, worker advocates praised the rules or called for stricter regulations. The United Farm Workers called the rules crucial and pointed to increasing wildfires caused by worsening climate change in a statement released in May.

Edgar Franks, political director for independent farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, called for lower air quality thresholds and for complete work stoppages at higher AQI levels in an interview in May.

Gregersen said that in an extremely smoky situations, L&I only expects emergency response or utility workers protecting critical infrastructure to be working outdoors.

“We’ve heard from many employers that they will not be operating at those high levels,” she said.

Gregersen added that employers must communicate with employees and listen to their concerns about wildfire smoke. There is also a requirement for trainings for employees and supervisors and a wildfire smoke response plan. L&I provided a guide for that training in its proposed rules’ Appendix A.

Some of the symptoms listed for wildfire smoke exposure include irritation of eyes and lungs, persistent coughing, difficulty breathing, bronchitis, heart failure and early death, according to L&I.

A virtual hearing via Zoom is planned at 5:30 p.m. Monday, July 31. Comments can also be mailed to L&I or emailed to Cynthia.ireland@L&I.wa.gov by Aug. 4 at 5 p.m.