As fires rage across the Western United States, I find myself spending more time monitoring air quality. In the good old days, that used to mean looking outside to see if the sky was clear or hazy. Now it involves checking websites or home monitors to determine the Air Quality Index for particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller (i.e., AQI for PM2.5). I know I’m not alone in this respect.

California employers with employees working outside need to be aware that the state’s Division of Occupational Health (better known as Cal/OSHA) has issued standards it expects employers to follow. Specifically, it expects employers to:

  • Regularly monitor forecasts and current AQI for PM2.5. Employers can monitor this through various websites such as U.S. EPA AirNow, the U.S. Forest Service Wildland Air Quality Response Program, the California Air Resources Board, your local air pollution control district, or your local air quality management district. There are also various apps for this purpose, two popular ones being IQAir and PurpleAir. Or you can purchase your own monitor (although I suspect that you may have to wait a while to get one now.
  • According to Cal/OSHA, if AQI is greater than 150, you must:
    • Take steps to protect employees. These can include any combination of the following:
      • Providing N95 masks (or better).
      • Locating work in enclosed structures or vehicles where the air is filtered.
      • Moving workers to areas with lower AQI.
      • Reducing work time in areas with unfiltered air.
      • Increasing rest time and frequency.
      • Providing a rest area with filtered air.
      • Reducing the physical intensity of the work.
    • Have a system to communicate to employees when levels are high and they should take steps to protect themselves.
    • Let employees know that, without fear of retaliation, they can:
      • Report wildfire smoke hazards
      • Seek medical attention
    • Train employees on how to protect themselves, how to report concerns, how to learn the AQI where they work, and other topics as specified here.

Employers can find more detail on the Cal/OSHA website here. As always, the basic principals are that employers must take appropriate steps to keep their workers safe and not retaliate against workers for raising concerns in good faith.

Stay safe!