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News / Business / Clark County Business

Washington considering worker protections as wildfires persist

Labor and Industries could require employers to respond to exposure

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 10, 2023, 6:07am

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries is considering new protections for outdoor workers, notably for those in construction and agriculture, as wildfires become more frequent.

The National Interagency Fire Center’s June forecast shows above-normal potential for wildfire to occur in Washington and Oregon, with fire risk forecast to become more widespread in July and August.

The department’s proposal would require employers to clearly identify harmful wildfire exposure, respond to these situations and follow other high-heat procedures. It would require employers to offer related annual training, monitor workers’ health and provide proper respiratory equipment when needed.

Currently, Washington Labor and Industries only provides guidance for best practices. California and Oregon are the only other states that have implemented similar workplace safety measures centered around wildfire smoke.

In July, there will be public hearings statewide regarding the proposed rules, one of which will take place around 9 a.m. July 25 at the Clark College Columbia Tech Center campus, 18700 S.E. Mill Plain Blvd.

In fall 2020, more than 840,000 acres of forest burned west of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington within two weeks. In the previous five decades, wildfires ravaged just over 1 million acres of land, according to the U.S. Forest Service. California set historic records that same year, burning nearly 4.4 million acres in 2020. Fires lingered for months.

Following these events, a petitioner submitted a request in 2020 for updated rulemaking, noting that workers continue to perform essential duties while wildfires become more widespread, according to the department. Given this expanding force of fire, and assuming outbreaks persist, more protections must be put in place, they added.

Wildfire smoke — whether it’s from vegetation, buildings or other burning substances — contains a mix of gas and particulates that can lead to an abundance of health issues. Breathing this air can immediately prompt coughing, a shortness of breath and chest pain. Eyes can sting, and noses can run.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says wildfire smoke exposure can trigger asthma and heart attacks, as well as strokes.

Following wildfires in 2020, Labor and Industries began reviewing its rules in conjunction with public requests for updates and submitted emergency revisions over the following years.

Since then, wildfires have continued to devastate land — and air quality.

In 2022, Seattle briefly had the worst air quality in the world due to a collection of nine fires statewide, according to air-quality monitoring company IQAir. Farther south, the Nakia Creek Fire blanketed Southwest Washington with smoke.

Normally, Washington’s wildfire season begins in May and ends in October, though climatologists say the season is expected to grow due to hotter, drier summers.

This heat has already been felt locally. This week, two vegetation fires spread quickly in Vancouver.

In May, the National Weather Service placed Southwest Washington and much of Northwestern Oregon under a heat advisory as temperatures reached the 90s, more than 20 degrees higher than seasonably normal.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer