The state department of Labor and Industries has begun a rule-making process to protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke. It will make Washington the second state after California to do so.
This summer, smoke from wildfires made Washington’s air quality among the worst in the world. Authorities told people to stay indoors to protect their health. But many still had to work outside. Chief among them? Farmworkers, who are considered essential.
“You know, they’re told to go to work for a full day — 8, 10, 12 hours a day, being exposed to the smoke and the wildfires,” said Edgar Franks, political and campaign director with the farmworkers union Familias Unidas Por La Justicia. He says this summer, many had only disposable or cloth masks, which don’t filter out the dangerous particulate matter in smoke that N-95 masks do.
“We need to have available the best materials for protecting workers. Otherwise, you’re just jeopardizing peoples’ health,” Franks said.
Requiring employers to provide proper masks is among the rules under consideration. Other large sectors the agency wants to protect include construction and delivery workers.
Washington L&I currently suggests best practices such as relocating or rescheduling work when necessary, along with providing effective filtration and face coverings. L&I spokesman Tim Church says the agency created the page detailing those guidelines last year, as a resource for employers. But it’s not enough.
“Because right now, while there are recommendations and behaviors that we'd like to see, there are no official requirements when it comes to workplace safety and the breathing in of wildfire smoke," Church said. "It's time to change that. And that's the purpose of this.”
L&I says the process has just begun and lots of public input must be gathered. But the plan is to have rules in place before this summer, even if they’re not yet permanent. The agency wants to be ready to protect outdoor workers from the likelihood of another season of unhealthy air from wildfire smoke.