As wildfire seasons become longer and more intense on the West Coast, Washington has become the third state—along with California and Oregon—to move toward adopting permanent rules governing outdoor worker exposure to the ill effects of smoke-polluted air.
The Washington State Dept. of Labor & Industries filed a proposal for permanent wildfire smoke rules, launching a formal process for public input in July, all designed to protect workers as wildfire smoke pollution becomes harsher.
"Wildfire smoke carries dangerous particles that can make asthma worse, reduce lung function, and even increase the risk of early death," Matt Ross, L&I spokesperson, tells ENR. "As climate change continues to lead to longer and more severe wildfire seasons, the need for worker protections will also grow."
Using the NowCast Air Quality Index (AQI) for small particles of dangerous materials as the guide, the proposed Washington rules require employers to provide increasing protections to keep workers "safe and healthy," L&I says.
Washington is looking to become the third West Coast state to make smoke rules permanent, but it takes a different stance on the AQI than either California or Oregon. California enacted its full-time rules in 2021, using an AQI of 151 or greater to kick in key protections. Oregon's law, effective as of July 2022, has regulations ramping up at an AQI of 101 or greater. Washington, though, starts its rules at an AQI of 69 or higher, a relatively moderate level of particulate matter exposure.
"My primary concern with the proposed smoke rules is the low threshold at which they become active," Pam Lewison, agriculture research director at the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center, tells ENR. The independent, nonprofit think tank is routinely involved in state legislative committees with the goal of promoting "evidence-based research" when crafting policy
"An AQI of 69, for an otherwise healthy person, has been determined not to be dangerous by the EPA—arguably one of the strictest federal agencies in the country—and setting the threshold for 'encouragement' of mask-wearing at that level puts employees and employers in an awkward position," Lewison says. "There is no definition in the proposed rules for what 'encouragement' means."
Lewison says she has no issue with the state asking employers to have masks available for anyone wishing to wear them, if "everyone understands it should be the choice of the employee to determine when they feel it is unsafe to work without a mask."
In the proposed Washington rules, the most restrictive of the three states, at an AQI of 69 or higher employers must provide a wildfire smoke response plan, safety training and emergency response measures for employees experiencing systems. At an AQI of 101 or higher, respiratory protection must be provided, although use is voluntary.
At an AQI of 301 or higher the respiratory protection must be distributed to the employees, although use is still voluntary, and the worksite must have a space with clean air for workers experiencing smoke symptoms to relocate to if needed. At an AQI of 500 or higher, workers must wear an N95 mask, at minimum. Any levels beyond the AQI chart requires respirators beyond the N95 level.
Employers must also monitor the air quality and alert workers when it exceeds certain exposure thresholds.
Lewison believes following the currently established EPA AQI guidelines makes more sense than "creating an arbitrary threshold in the middle of the EPA guidelines," meaning Washington state is redefining federal-level policy with state-level caveats. She also wants to ensure that employees understand that for N95 masks to work as intended, they must be individually fit tested.
The proposed rules must go through a public comment period, which includes in-person hearings in July in six cities across the state and a virtual hearing. The comment period concludes Aug. 4 and L&I intends to post final language for the rule in August.