All outdoor workers are susceptible to wildfire smoke, according to the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, which plans to lower the threshold for requiring smoke-filtering masks.
Under emergency rules, workers had to wear respirators this year when the air quality index hit 550, far worse than the 301 the Environmental Protection Agency considers dangerous for everyone.
For a permanent rule, L&I is considering setting the threshold as low as 201, a level the EPA calls “very unhealthy.” California requires masks at AQI 500; Oregon at 251.
The AQI measures smoke particles in the air. The higher the number, the thicker the smoke.
In 2020, Governor Jay Inslee ordered L&I to write a wildfire smoke rule at the request of United Farm Workers and the UFW Foundation. L&I imposed emergency rules in 2021 and 2022.
L&I has circulated for comment a proposal similar to the emergency rule, but with stricter requirements. The rule will apply to farm workers, loggers, construction workers, utility workers and others, including bus drivers who open doors to let passengers on or off.
Requirements will increase as the air deteriorates.
At age 69, a level the EPA calls “acceptable” for “exceptionally susceptible” people, employers will need to encourage workers to wear N95 masks.
Employers will be encouraged to move work indoors, cancel work, slow work, allow more breaks and not raise dust, fumes or smoke.
At 101, a level the EPA calls “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” exposure controls become mandatory “wherever possible” and employers must make N95 masks available.
The EPA on its website cites the elderly, young people, diabetics, and people with heart and lung disease as examples of susceptible groups. For L&I, outdoor workers are a sensitive group.
“Outdoor workers are working and can’t easily get indoors,” L&I physician Nicholas Reul said Oct. 13 in an online meeting with interested parties.
“All employees covered by … the rule are considered a sensitive group at higher risk of poor performance,” he said.
At 201 or 301, the department has not decided, workers will be required to wear N95 masks. Other face coverings, like bandanas or surgical masks, won’t do.
During the online meeting, L&I officials answered questions about how the mask mandate will be enforced.
“We have seen AQI levels well above 200 in central Washington in recent months. While we have been handing out N95s (masks), our employees have refused to wear them. companies mandate the use of masks? one person asked.
“Some employees won’t wear N95s,” another person observed. “Can they choose to go home without worrying about the employer’s recourse?
L&I officials compared the requirement to wear masks to the requirement to wear hard hats, safety glasses and reflective vests.
At AQI 500, workers must be enrolled in a “comprehensive respiratory protection program.” Masks should fit snugly. Workers may need to be clean-shaven.
At AQI 550 and above, respirators with P100 filters will be required. Bearded men could wear purifying air-supplied respirators.
The rule will also require employers to train workers on the dangers of wildfire smoke.
L&I will accept comments on the proposal until October 21. Comments can be emailed to email@example.com. The department has not officially proposed a permanent rule.