The Dangers of Working Outdoors During California Wildfire Season
California wildfires are now a yearly event.
Nearly four million people work outdoors in California. Industries like agriculture, construction, landscaping, and utilities rely on employees to work outdoors, even during wildfire season.
Though employers are required to take steps to protect outdoor workers from breathing in harmful levels of smoke, such as providing N95 masks, California’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety (known as Cal/OSHA), cited employers just 11 times between July 2019 and October 5, 2021. Only two agricultural employers were fined by CAL/OSHA for failing to provide enough respirators or effective training to employees exposed to wildfire smoke, according to agency data.
Excessive exposure to wildfire smoke can cause eye and throat irritation, persistent coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing and even certain types of cancers. Exposure to just 2.5 parts per million can even lead to reduced lung function, heart failure, and even early death.
An investigation by The California Newsroom linked the rise of wildfire smoke to sharp increases in hospitalizations for heart and lung conditions in California. The investigation also revealed a dramatic rise in prescriptions for the asthma medication albuterol as the number of “smoke days” increase. There is simply no denying the correlation.
Nayamin Martinez, executive director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network said, “I always find it very ironic when the agencies brag, ‘Oh, we have more stringent rules [than] the entire nation.’ Well, those rules are out there. But if you don’t enforce them, then there’s nothing good out of them.”
A recent survey of more than 300 agricultural workers in the San Joaquin Valley conducted by Central California Environmental Justice Network found that nearly 60% of farmworkers weren’t provided N95 masks nor did they know what “N95s” even were. About 45% said they didn’t know what protections they had from California wildfire smoke.
The fact that so many at-risk workers are not even aware of the type of masks that would provide enhanced protection is proof that employers are not stepping up to their responsibility when it comes to educating and protecting their workers.
CAL/OSHA is taking steps in the right direction. The agency has begun posting videos and other training materials on its website in both Spanish and English with the goal of protecting workers, and providing safety information that employers are not.