YAKIMA — The state is taking comments on new permanent rules for working outdoors in wildfire smoke.
The issue has become more important in recent years as large wildfires affect air quality in Central Washington for days or weeks at a time. The Washington Department of Labor and Industries implemented emergency rules in 2021 and 2022, and now wants to make them permanent.
The new rules could require employers to create wildfire smoke plans, monitor air conditions and implement safety protocols based on the level of air pollution.
Advocates for agricultural employers and employees noted the importance of the rules for maintaining health and safety but are preparing to share feedback and concerns at a series of public hearings L&I is hosting in July, one of which will be in Yakima on July 27.
L&I’s proposal focuses on air pollution from particulate matter 2.5, or PM2.5. Any particle less than 2.5 micrometers is considered PM2.5. A human hair is roughly 50-70 micrometers wide. Such particles can originate from burning gasoline, oil or wood. Forest fires can be a source of PM2.5 air pollution.
According to L&I, exposure to PM2.5 can irritate the eyes and lead to difficulty breathing, chest pain, nausea and dizziness. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, long term exposure to PM2.5 can damage the heart, nervous system and respiratory system, and cause cancer or respiratory disease.
Wildfires, a major source of smoke and air pollution, have increased in size during the 21st century, according to the EPA. Washington, California and other western states have seen particularly large increases in the amount of land scorched by wildfires, worsening air quality and covering communities with smoke during fire season.
New proposed rules
The proposed rules would apply to all outdoor workplaces and would require employers in such industries to take precautions depending on the air quality index (AQI), a measurement of PM2.5 in the air.
Employers would be required to have a wildfire smoke response plan that has provisions for medical treatment, training for workers and supervisors, increased communication and a way to get affected workers to spaces with cleaner air.
Managers and supervisors would have to monitor air quality using state or government websites and tell employees when the AQI passes various thresholds — 69, 100, 300 and 500.
At an AQI of 69 or above, workers must be aware of the wildfire smoke response plan and safety training. At AQIs over 100 or 300, employers must provide government approved respirators or masks, but wearing them is optional for employees.
When the AQI is over 300, employers must pass respirators out directly to employees and be able to relocate affected workers to a room or location with clean air. At AQIs of 500 or more, respirators must be worn.
Respirators, or masks with filtration systems, must be N95 respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, not surgical or cloth masks. There are requirements for more protective respirators when the AQI is above 500.
Air quality can be monitored by workers and managers using the AirNow website or a state Department of Ecology website, among other sources. Employers are required to listen to workers’ concerns without reprisal. Air quality also can be monitored on-site using sensors approved by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a Southern California air quality agency.
Reactions to the proposals
Worker advocates and some employer advocates noted the importance of the rules, but many had concerns they planned to share with L&I.
Farmworker unions noted the links between a climate change — particularly warmer and drier summers — and increasingly large fires. The United Farm Workers (UFW), an agricultural labor union, praised L&I for the effort.
“As climate change worsens and wildfires become more frequent, strong protections against wildfire smoke for outdoor workers will only become more and more crucial,” said Antonio de Loera, communications director for UFW, in an email.
Edgar Franks, political director for independent farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia based in the Skagit Valley, advocated for a lower threshold than the proposed AQI of 69.
“A lot of the research and the science is saying that 69 is already way too high, it’s almost at a dangerous level,” Franks said.
The EPA considers an AQI above 50 acceptable, though the agency notes it is risky for particularly sensitive groups of people. Franks said workers should always have access to respirators and other protective equipment to ensure safety. He added that work should be suspended at an AQI greater than 500.
“If it’s at 500, I don’t think people should be working at all,” Franks said. “No way.”
Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association (WSTFA), said it had been difficult for employers to mandate the use of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was pleased that use was voluntary for employees between an AQI of 101 and 499.
He said WSTFA was collecting feedback regarding some aspects of the wildfire smoke response plan. Mike Gempler, executive director for the Growers League, also expressed concerns with the liability employers might face when implementing the plan.
The rules are important, he said, and many employers will “want to do the protective work.”
Gempler’s concern was for small farms who might not have the time to easily comply with paper work.
“That’s a real concern for me, the amount of responsibility for management to put together programs and be liable for them when the air quality index hits a certain threshold,” Gempler said. “(We) just want to make sure those requirements are doable for small farms.”
Public hearing in Yakima
Community members will have an opportunity to provide feedback on the rules at six in-person L&I hearings beginning July 18 in Spokane and ending July 27 at Yakima Valley College.
In Yakima, L&I will have a pre-hearing overview at 9 a.m. on July 27 and a hearing afterward at 10 a.m. in meeting room 122 at YVC.
A virtual hearing is planned July 28.
During public hearings on new heat rules for outdoor workers, community advocates expressed concerns about the timing of the meetings. Franks noted that it would be difficult for workers to take time off and attend a morning hearing.
“A real simple solution is that, is it possible for L&I to have meetings after 5 or 6?” Franks said.
Dina Lorraine, a communications consultant for L&I, said the hearing schedule would not be changed, but said written comments can also be submitted online.
“We did note those comments and will be looking for alternative ways to engage with folks who might not be able to attend. Hopefully, they will still be able to take advantage of the written comment option,” she said in an email.