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How to Protect Outdoor Workers from Wildfire Smoke Exposure

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Wildfire smoke is a seasonal health hazard that employers should be prepared for, especially if their business requires outdoor work.

Wildfires are common typically between May and September. Not only do they cause widespread damage to life and property, but smoke from wildfires can also travel great distances and affect air quality in surrounding areas.

It is important that you take steps to protect your workers from exposure to wildfire smoke.

What hazards can be caused by exposure to wildfire smoke?

Wildfire smoke may cause short-term and long-term health effects. The severity of the impact depends on the level and duration of exposure and the health of those exposed.

Your employees with respiratory conditions (asthma, chronic bronchitis), cardiovascular conditions (angina, previous heart attack), compromised lung function or immune system would be at a greater risk.

Fire smoke contains a mix of particles and chemicals. Its hazardous components are carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter.

When inhaled, carbon monoxide reduces oxygen supply in the body. This can lead to nausea, dizziness, headaches, visual impairment, and loss of consciousness. If inhaled in great quantities, carbon monoxide may cause death.

Particulate matter can affect your respiratory system and settle in your lungs. It can cause irritation of eyes, nose, throat, cough, and shortness of breath. Particulate matter can worsen pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. Smoke exposure can also cause heat stress.

Reduced visibility is another smoke-related safety hazard you must consider.

How can I protect my workers from smoke exposure?

To provide a safe workplace, you should first conduct a risk assessment. Based on the risks identified, you should put safety measures and controls in place.

To protect your staff from exposure to wildfire smoke, we recommend that you:

  • Move work indoors or relocate to an outdoor location with better air quality.
  • If you can’t move, reschedule work till air quality gets better. Follow air quality advisories in your area to plan and schedule shifts.
  • Slow down the pace of work or increase the number of workers on the task. Reducing physical exertion will reduce inhalation of polluted air.
  • Increase the frequency and/or duration of breaks.
  • Wildfire smoke also causes heat stress. Provide cool drinking water on the work site. Remind your workers to drink a glass of water at least every 15 to 20 minutes even if they aren’t feeling thirsty.
  • Train your staff to recognize the symptoms of smoke exposure.
  • Have a response plan ready in case a worker experiences symptoms of smoke exposure
  • If needed, provide respirators suited to the level of protection required. The N95 particulate-filtering facepiece is the most used respirator for wildfire smoke. But a different kind may be required for more advanced protection. Do not use surgical masks.
  • Instruct your staff on proper use of respirators.
  • Educate your staff on the precautions to take while driving in low visibility.
  • Check in with your workers to ensure they are well.
  • Keep track of local weather updates and public health warnings.
Tips for indoor workplaces

Wildfire smoke can also impact indoor air quality. To reduce its impact on the air quality indoors, you should:

  • Ensure the HVAC system is working properly, and its air filters are clean and undamaged.
  • Use portable air purifiers with HEPA filters to rid indoor air of particulate matter.
  • You could also consider reducing the intake of outdoor air temporarily. But only do so after consulting a HVAC technician.
What should I do if an employee shows symptoms of smoke exposure?

Respond as you would in case of any other workplace injury or illness. If a worker exhibits severe symptoms, get them medical help immediately.

Do you need help developing health and safety policies for your business?

Our experts can help you develop company policies as well as with any other HR, health and safety, or employment advice you may need. See how we have helped other small and medium businesses get their business compliant with provincial legislation.